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Sharing the Universe Research Objectives

Some social researchers who study how people spend their free time classify amateur astronomers and other amateur scientists as members of the “serious leisure” world, meaning their dedication to their favorite science does not constitute a hobby meant to simply pass the time, but is instead an earnest pursuit for knowledge and understanding. In fact, it is pretty much undisputed in professional astronomy that amateur astronomers are important contributors to the science. From discoveries of new asteroids, comets, and supernovae to exceptional astrophotography and photometry, their achievements are well recognized. As noted astronomer Patrick Moore put it in his 1995 book The Observational Amateur Astronomer, “Amateur observers have always played a major role in astronomy. … Amateur work today is as valuable as ever, and to a considerable extent professional researchers depend upon it.”

We also know that many amateur astronomers regularly engage in education and public outreach (EPO) activities. In classrooms, or what is sometimes regarded as the formal education world, they often volunteer to assist teachers with astronomy and other science curriculum. In “out-of-school” or informal education settings, members of amateur astronomy clubs who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and passion for the night sky frequently set up their telescopes for the general public to take a closer look at various astronomical objects. Some amateurs, especially those involved in the Night Sky Network, also engage their audience members in hands-on learning activities and/or make use of a variety of demonstration materials to better explain certain astronomical topics. But unlike their contributions to science, amateur astronomers’ impacts as educators are far less thoroughly understood or documented.

Sharing the Universe aims to bring more attention to, and shed new light on the contributions amateur astronomers are making to public education. Taking a cue from what is known in the world of education research as “citizen science” (which documents and studies opportunities for the general public to contribute to scientific research and the impacts those involved are making), the Sharing the Universe project team and our amateur astronomer partners will be looking at how some citizens, namely amateur astronomers, contribute to the education of others. As part of this research, we will be studying EPO in-depth as part of amateur astronomy club culture. More specifically, we want to know how “best practices” in the area of amateur EPO can be shared with amateurs across the country, and what support mechanisms and other resources the project team should develop that amateurs believe will improve and/or increase their impacts.

By the end of the first year of Sharing the Universe (mid 2008), we will use our initial research findings to develop strategies and resources that assist amateur astronomy clubs in their EPO. An ambitious research and evaluation effort will subsequently document the effectiveness of these support mechanisms in helping amateur astronomers engage the public.

The work of Sharing the Universe may influence other serious leisure groups as well. Many amateur scientists engaged in serious leisure pursuits (e.g., bird watchers, mushroom hunters, ham radio operators, etc.) also enjoy sharing information and enthusiasm for their field with the public, and thus may benefit from the principles that prove effective in supporting EPO by amateur astronomers. We will validate our findings on amateur astronomers with experts in the bird-watching and citizen science community, and will circulate our project results through some of the principal publications dedicated to amateur science. In addition, we plan to publish key findings within the appropriate education literature and at major education conferences for those researchers who wish to pursue and document further the concept and capacity of amateur scientists as “citizen science educators.”

For More Information

If you have questions about Sharing the Universe, or would like to find out how you or your astronomy club might get involved, please send us an email at: stu {at} astrosociety.org.