Outreach vs. Reaching Out

For a few moments they’re exploring the cosmos in their very own personal planetarium and not just sick in a hospital anymore. Every exclamation of delight, every smile, every tired but grateful parent sitting by a briefly distracted child reminds me why I’m there.
inside the portable planetarium

Astronomy is sometimes called a ‘gateway drug’ to the natural sciences. Considered to be not as hard as physics, not as abstract as math, not as formulaic as chemistry, not as messy as biology – astronomy has something for everyone. Beautiful images, incredible ideas about the cosmos, blockbuster movies and television shows exploring some of the most extreme concepts, a fringe element with some interesting conspiracy theories, astronomy is cool in so many ways.

For many years across multiple institutions, I’ve been involved in astronomy outreach efforts. There’s nothing like the joy on someone’s face when they see one of the big three (the Moon, Saturn, or Jupiter) through even a modestly sized telescope for the first time. But in many ways, that’s the ‘easy’ outreach, you set up a telescope somewhere, advertise and let people come to you. It’s enjoyable and gratifying, but ultimately it can feel like you’re preaching to the choir. People come to these events because they’re already interested in astronomy and they identify as the sort of person who would attend such an event. You’re probably not changing anyone’s mind about astronomy. But you can surprise them maybe by breaking stereotypes by being a woman astronomer;  that’s one of the main reasons I still do these kinds of events. Being a role model for young girls who are interested in science is something I strive for constantly. But then what?

My colleagues and I began searching for more, for a way to reach beyond the circle of people who were already converted. How do we reach those people who wouldn’t or couldn't attend a stargazing event? That’s when I saw a tweet I was following about a Japanese conference focused on communicating astronomy to the public. A group in Japan who were taking a portable planetarium around to children’s hospital wards, transporting sick children out of their beds and wheelchairs and out into the cosmos. I knew instantly that this was the idea for which I had been searching.

I reached out to Dr. Jeff Rich, a scientist and outreach coordinator just up the road at Carnegie Observatories. Pasadena calls itself the ‘City of Astronomy’ and rightfully so – there are many institutions, astronomy departments, labs and major telescope headquarters within the city limits. Caltech and Carnegie have coordinated on outreach activities before, so I knew Jeff had a stunning portable planetarium, courtesy of a generous grant from the Pasadena Community Fund. I asked if he was interested in the idea of visiting hospitals around LA with the planetarium and he immediately responded with a hearty "Yes."

Since then we have visited three hospitals and are finalizing plans to visit a fourth. This is not painless, low-effort outreach. Every hospital has new challenges – is there an indoor space big enough to fit the 15-foot high dome? Where won’t it block the security exit? If not is there a sheltered outdoor area that’s not in the full sun? Each hospital specializes in children with specific health needs – we have worked out how to accommodate wheelchairs, wagons, IV poles, and entire life support teams. We have tailored shows to children who are too tired or in pain if they sit for long periods of time, as well as tiny unstoppable bundles of energy with cranial ports who are literally bouncing off the walls. We have taken each and every one of them on a journey through the solar system. For a few moments they’re exploring the cosmos in their very own personal planetarium and not just sick in a hospital anymore. Every exclamation of delight, every smile, every tired but grateful parent sitting by a briefly distracted child reminds me why I’m there.

At each location we have added a final show for the tireless, ever-smiling staff. I can’t imagine the strength it must take to work with sick children every day. But I can see how hard they work for those kids – how much they try to ease their pain, to brighten their day, to coax a smile – and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work alongside them for even one day.

So far, the visits appear to have been a success. All the hospital Child Life coordinators have been happy and have asked us when we’re bringing the planetarium back. That seems like a good sign, and it’s personally very gratifying to have the hospital visits included in the repertoire of outreach events on offer from the City of Astronomy. I would love to encourage other astronomy groups with access to a portable planetarium to consider this kind of program. It’s only one example and a relatively small (but mighty!) new audience, but I find it hugely encouraging. It’s a start! In general, accessibility remains a significant hurdle to astronomy and to the natural sciences. We need to continue to find ways to make sure we’re reaching out and not just doing outreach.

Watch the video below showing the portable planetarium in action:

Jessie Christiansen with the portable planetarium
Jessie Christiansen with the portable planetarium

About the Author:

Dr. Jessie Christiansen is a research scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech, and Deputy Science Lead of the NASA Exoplanet Archive. She was awarded the 2018 NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal for her work on the NASA Kepler Mission, and the 2018 Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from Griffith University, Australia. She is married to a theoretical astrophysicist and has four-year-old twins.