Local research facility works to introduce students and adults to astronomy

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Perhaps you have never heard of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.

Viewed from Highway 22 near Priddis, Atla., the small collection of buildings that makeup the facility look rather unremarkable.

A lone roadside sign gives no indication that the observatory — perched on a hilltop a 20-minute drive southwest from the city — is home to one of the largest telescopes in Canada.

Z rothneyobservatory5The A.R. Cross Telescope is one of the largest telescopes in Canada.

Photo by: Karry Taylor

But as an increasing number of visitors are discovering, the observatory provides a unique opportunity for Calgarians of all ages to learn about astronomy.

It boasts an unobstructed view of the night sky, complemented by a full slate of education and public outreach programs.

 And yes, you can even catch a peek at the A.R. Cross Telescope, which along with similar structures in Victoria, B.C., and Richmond, Ont., makes up a linked set of the three largest telescopes in Canada

Observatory’s role expanded

Phil Langill teaches astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Calgary and serves as the director of the observatory. Although the observatory is close to 40 years old, Langill says offering public programs is a relatively recent endeavor.

“Until about five years ago, it was primarily the university’s research and teaching facility for astronomy,” he explained. “When I became director I thought the observatory could be doing a lot more.”

“We got this notion of trying to invent some educational programs to see if there were teachers who might feel that it would be beneficial to have their students come out to the observatory.”

Word-of-mouth advertising

Z rothneyobservatory2Phil Langill is the director of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.

Photo by: Karry Taylor

After initially relying on tables set up at teachers’ conventions to drum up interest.

Langill says that the best form of advertising has been through word of mouth from those who have been out to the observatory.

“We would do some activities, they would get a tour and see what was going on in the world of astronomical research. The kids and the teachers would go away thinking it was a great experience,” he says.

“My impression is that it’s a unique place from the perspective of a young student.It’s an opportunity to see first-hand what a well-equipped research facility looks like.”

Connecting the university with schools

Implementing public outreach programming into the observatory’s operating scheme required careful planning.

“The challenge was that people at the university really didn’t have any idea what was on the curriculum of science teachers in Calgary schools,” Langill says.

“We had to educate ourselves about what they are teaching in schools that relates to astronomy. Then we had to craft our activities in that direction.

“Now we are much more in tune with what is going on at the schools, which is a good thing.”

Making complicated ideas understandable

Jennifer Howse manages the observatory’s interpretive centre and designs the public education programs.

Howse, who has degrees in both first nations history and museum studies, says that coming from a non-science background actually helps her do her job better.

Part of that job involves talking to the observatory’s astronomers and astrophysicists to try to understand their research and work. She then puts that information into a language that can be understood by non-scientists.

“I think about what questions I would have about it, as well as what questions the general public would have,” Howse says.

Public outreach beyond the classroom

In addition to educational programs, the observatory offers open houses, drop-in tours and other special events designed to attract members of the public interested in astronomy.

Howse says it is often a case of “finding out of what works and what doesn’t.”

Many of the observatory’s public events are held at night to allow for star-gazing, a fact Howse must consider when designing the programming.

“I have to think about ‘will people be prepared to hear this at 10 p.m.?’” she says. “So these are the filters that I put some of our talks through.”

Making astronomy fun

The observatory’s next public event will be an open house on solar system research to be held on Nov. 19.

Although the open houses are designed to educate the public about astronomy, there is often a fun side to events held at the observatory.

Z rothneyobservatory3Stefan Cowley came to the Sci-Fi Night dressed as Darth Maul .

Photo by: Karry Taylor

On Oct. 29 the observatory held its second annual Sci-Fi Night, which featured talks about astronomy, costume and trivia contests, and readings from members of the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, a local science fiction writing group.

Members of the Calgary chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada were also on hand to demonstrate telescopes and answer questions.

According to Langill, the idea for the event came about because the observatory staff “thought it would be fun to do something related to science fiction around Halloween.”

“Although we do serious science here, sometimes it’s fun to be not too serious and just have people come out and have a good time,” Langill says.

Jon Knight attended this year’s Sci-Fi Night and regularly attends the observatory’s open houses with his 11-year-old son.

“It’s always interesting to come and hear what is going on in outer space and to get a chance to look at the telescopes,” Knight says.

“For someone like me who is very interested in astronomy but doesn’t always understand the science behind it, these events are perfect.

“The staff here is great at making outer space interesting and understandable. And it’s a great place to bring out the entire family.”

Room for growth

Langill says while there is room for growth in the number and types of programs that could be offered, the observatory is currently “at capacity.”

“We would have to get more manpower. But the interest is there.”

Howse agrees.

“Every year we get more visitors. There is definitely an audience for it. We had 1,300 people over a three night period last summer on our Milky Way Nights, when we open up the observatory for late night observing,” she says.

“So if the sky is right, we have an audience.”

More information about public programs offered at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory can be found here.


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