Advice for someone wanting a school star party
Our main goal is to share the excitement and fascination of actually seeing astronomical objects, things that the students have only seen in books. We like to explain interesting details about what we’re showing, and we enjoy talking about astronomy and science in general. So, tell the students to bring their questions and take their time; it’s to be enjoyed!
Our star parties are informal. We set up several scopes and invite everybody to look at Saturn, Jupiter, the Moon, star clusters, etc. Each astronomer will talk about the object, answer questions, help pick out details, etc.
Fees: none; this is our contribution to the schools and the students. Astronomy is our hobby, not our job.
The teacher needs to explain the activity and times to the principal and other teachers, and verify that the date isn’t already occupied by a school event. (We don’t compete well with sports.) Once the date is approved by the principal, contact me again and I’ll put it on the SJAA calendar. I’ll put out the call for scopes about two weeks before the event.
Someone at the school should make up an announcement to be sent home with the kids. The note (see my tips, below) should tell parents to bring warm clothing. Please avoid flashlights and the shoes with blinking lights! They are painfully bright at night.
Be sure to include the pointer to the Current Events page, which will have the final status by 1 or 2 pm on the star party day.
Grades to invite: All grades are welcome, and siblings should always be invited to come along.
Commonly, the parents bring the pre-schoolers too, and that’s okay. At the telescopes, we try to discourage only the ones who are so young that they can’t climb the ladder unaided (that is, we try to discourage their parents).
The younger ones don’t get much out of it, so we suggest that the announcement is sent home with second graders and older.
Available dates are on the Current Events page. It is desirable to have the moon, as the kids love it and it’s a spectacular object. But there are relatively few good moon dates, so much of the time we’ll use a moonless evening. Too much moon (over 75% illuminated) spoils the view of all but a very few objects, so we much prefer to avoid such dates.
Approximate start times are included on the above page. On the second Sunday of March, the clocks are advanced to DST (Darkness Squandering Time), so we must start later than is desirable. Though 8:30 pm may seem impossibly late, in practice we have good turnouts, even starting that late. One trick for parents is to get the kids to finish homework and baths before coming back to the school. I believe that some things are worth having sleepy students the next morning. My own experience is that they are going to be all excited, talking about what they saw last evening!
A typical star party runs 90 minute to two hours, but sometimes a few extra-interested students will stay somewhat later. I prefer to plan on two hours. In practice, the parents determine the end time, as they know when bedtimes approach.
Weather verses start time: The best weather prospects are in months that also have very late start times (September, April, May).
Schedule as early as practical; for an elementary school, that probably means mid-October, when the start time has dropped to 7:30. For a middle school, early October, when the start time is 7:45.
If all goes well, start planning next year’s event. If we’re clouded out, re-schedule as soon as possible, even though the chances for rain are increasing. If clouded out again, schedule again. Keep trying; the record is four cloud-outs, then a clear sky. Much more typical is one re-schedule.
Telephone numbers and weather: Send along a daytime phone number, and I’ll supply mine. On the day of the event, I want to phone you about 11:30 to noon, as a final readiness check and to discuss the weather prospects. It needs to be early enough so that, if the weather is impossible, you can broadcast a cancellation message at school. A typical call lasts 3 to 5 minutes.
If school is not in session (or the target group is not all in one place) we can utilize the SJAA Hot line (408-559-1221) to broadcast the weather decision. In any case, it’s also posted on the Current Events page.
If there is hope that there may be holes in the clouds, we may come out anyway. If there are other events at the school (such as science night) some of us would probably come, just to show the scopes and answer astronomical questions. This is decided during the phone call.
Setup area: We usually set up on a play area, such as the basketball or tennis courts, or other open area with a view of the sky, away from outside lights. This eliminates the main parking lot.
Since the scopes are big and heavy, we need to drive into the observing area. So, if there is a gate, someone will have to obtain the key. Usually the teacher or PTA officer carries the key and stays until the end. We like 90 minutes before and 30 after to set up and tear down the scopes. Sometimes the custodian has left, and I’ll snap the lock on the way out.
We set up near our vehicles, so that we can quickly reach for various items during the star party, such as various eyepieces, a reference book, a warmer jacket, or another bottle of water.
Walk-around: Since a star party has unusual requirements, I request a preliminary evening visit well ahead of time, so that we can determine just where to set up, what gates need to be opened, and what lights need to be covered or switched off. It’s helpful to have a custodian walk along, to deal with lights and sprinklers.
The preliminary visit should start about sunset (or later) on the visit day, so that we can see the interfering lights. One hour is sufficient, and it saves time, as the directions will be accurate, the gates will be unlocked, etc.
Regarding outside lighting: Any light that shines on the star party will interfere with viewing astronomical objects. These can be play-ground flood lights, lighted outdoor hallways, even lighted rooms with bare windows. It is very helpful to look around after dark to see which lights are visible from the intended observing area. Any that show the actual bulb, or that throw a harsh glare, will be trouble.
Lights should be off early, ideally at least one hour before the planned start time, and should stay off at least two hours after start time. But there is no need for them to come on again; we don’t need them to pack our telescopes.
Please make arrangements ahead of time to have lights turned off, or better yet, find out how to turn them off yourself. That way, we won’t be stuck at the last minute trying to find someone who knows where to find the switch or circuit breaker.
Astronomy and Science Night: Combining a science night with a star party seems ideal, but my experience is that it’s not a good idea.
- Astronomy demands darkness — generally, we start one hour after sunset. Since the time of sunset varies sharply over the school year, the star party places constraints on the date for the rest of the science fair, too.
- Some indoor activities set up the wrong attitude for the star party. For instance, if students have just been at a “hands-on” activity such as the Lawrence Hall of Science experiments, they’ll be inclined to push and pull at the telescopes, too. But that takes the scope off of our intended target, and we’d need to break in to re-position the scope.
- The requirement for darkness means that the star party must be the final event. By then, the students and parents are tired, and tend to leave quickly, rather than standing in line at each telescope. Each is showing a different object.
- Overlapping the indoor and outdoor activities doesn’t work. Most astronomical objects are faint, and require that the observer’s eyes are adjusted to darkness. That takes 15 to 30 minutes, depending on age; young eyes adjust quicker.
- At several schools, we’ve succeeded in giving the star party it’s own date, and the results were very favorable for both.
Short answer: Please don’t!
Long answer: Doing paperwork at the telescopes is very disruptive. Therefore, it is SJAA’s Policy to strongly oppose the filling out and/or signing of forms and questionnaires at star parties.
The paperwork is disruptive in several ways:
- Any lights needed to see the papers will spoil everyone’s night vision.
- Filling out the forms becomes the goal of the event.
- Some of the students don’t bother looking through the scopes, or will take only a cursory glance.
- Students often become so wrapped up in the forms, they interrupt our explanations to them or to others.
- The astronomer’s time and attention is absorbed by signing papers or answering the same assigned questions over and over.
Since we are not school employees, it is inappropriate to make us a required part of a school course. We cannot guarantee that we’ll be able to be there, nor that we will have sufficient telescopes for the students.
If the students are required to attend, then the teachers should be there too. If attendance is to be taken, that’s part of the teacher’s responsibility.
Extra credit may be a way to encourage parents to bring students to the star party. But paperwork isn’t needed; instead, have the students check in with a teacher, aide, designated parent, or PTA person. Another approach is for a designated person to give out “tickets”, which are turned in the next day to verify attendance. No signatures or flashlights are needed.
How to get the most out of your star party
- Leave flashlights at home, and omit lighted toys or rings, or shoes with blinking lights on them. As your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll be able to see well. Many astronomical objects are rather faint, and you need to get acclimated to the dark.
- For the same reason, please resist the urge to take flash pictures. We can accommodate photos during the setup period, prior to full darkness, and you will get better pictures.
- Bring warm clothes — a sweater or jacket, as the air cools quickly after dark, even after a warm day.
- Don’t carry food and drinks around the scopes. Spills are a problem for the scopes and also for those around them — it’s no fun walking around in sticky shoes.
- Be careful not to touch the telescopes, especially the eyepiece where you look in. They move very easily and will lose our target. Worse, you may lose your balance! Just hang onto the stepladder with both hands.
- Toddlers are too young to understand how to look into telescopes, nor can they make sense of what’s going on. When lifted, their natural tendency is to grab onto whatever is available, and that’s sure to be the telescope. Bring them again in a year or two, when they are old enough to climb the ladder without help.
- After we show the first group of objects, we’ll move the scopes to additional objects. So, after making the rounds of the telescopes, go back again, as we may have something new. We also take requests. Unfortunately, Pluto is too faint to be seen in a city, even with a large telescope.
Many thanks to Gary Mitchell for his help with this page.