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Project ASTRO How-To Manual: Star Party Ideas

While by no means required for a successful and rich partnership, an evening observing session, or “star party,” is a fun and engaging addition to any Project ASTRO program where the expertise and equipment is available. Star parties can be done with naked eye observing, or with telescopes, as long as your site is reasonably dark enough (or can be darkened). Star parties give students the opportunity to put their observational skills to work, and to directly experience astronomy. Most students (not to mention their parents) have never looked through a telescope before, and they will enjoy learning to identify some of the constellations. Just getting students to look at and notice the sky can help them to expand their understanding and delight in astronomy.

As mentioned earlier, star parties are also great opportunities to involve families, the school, and the community. Astronomers (professional and amateur) often ask local astronomy clubs to help out so that there are enough telescopes. Some Project ASTRO star parties have drawn up to 300 people! Be sure you have enough assistance and telescopes if you are expecting a crowd (see the tips on finding an amateur club in Section 4).

Doing a Project ASTRO star party will require some advance planning. It’s important to hold the star party at a convenient time in an accessible area, and to notify parents, the school, and all involved well in advance of the star party. In some cases, the school will be a good site for evening observing; in other cases, the school is not a good site due to inaccessibility or safety issues at night. If the star party is not held at school, transportation may be a problem. It’s also very important to have a back-up plan-make an alternate date ahead of time in case of rain or clouds, or arrange another astronomy activity to do instead (such as a planetarium visit or an indoor hands-on project).

And remember, you can also do observing activities during the day. For example, students can observe the Moon and its phases, look at the Sun and sunspots through a safe solar filter, observe the position and colors of sunrise and sunset, and measure shadows.

Some Factors to Consider

  • Location of the star party: Where can you find an open site? Will it be at school? In a park? Outside a museum? Where is the most accessible site in your area? Try to choose the darkest sight – be aware of school lights which may turn on in the evening.
  • Transportation for students and families: Will families be responsible for their own transportation? Can the school rent buses? Is public transportation available and safe? Are there any insurance issues?
  • Volunteers to help: Could a local amateur club help with the star party? Require parents to accompany their child to help with crowd control and to encourage family involvement. Do any parents have telescopes and the skills to use them? Are additional parents or teachers needed to supervise students?
  • Permission from administrators: Is permission needed from the principal? Are there any special requirements that must be met (such as permission forms)? Who can authorize turning off the lights, if necessary? The educators are experts in knowing any school issues regarding hosting an evening event on school grounds.
  • Preparing the site: Will you need keys to get into the site at night? How do lights get turned off? Are there sprinklers that might go on in the middle of the star party? In most schools, the custodian will be your best ally before and during a star party.
  • Equipment: Will you use telescopes? Who can bring the telescopes? How should students be prepared to handle the telescopes? What rules should there be about the use of flashlights (flashlights covered with red cellophane are much less obtrusive that those that have bright beams of white light, which can ruin night vision).
  • Refreshments and other activities: Will you have food at the star party? What other activities can you link with the star party to make it a fun and meaningful experience?
  • Invitations: Will you invite other classes or the whole school to the star party? Should families attend? Should school administrators? What about calling the local paper or TV station (in advance) for some publicity.
  • Ensure that students will be dressed appropriately for the colder evenings.
  • Contingency plan: What will you do in case bad weather?

Management and Enhancement Tips

  • The more telescopes the merrier (suggested ratio 1:15)
  • Create activity stations to engage students and to reduce long lines at the telescopes.
  • Begin with a common assembly before starting the activity stations. That way everyone starts at the same time and can rotate through all the stations.
  • Decide how long people should spend at each station and prepare maps or some other method to guide the groups through the activities (i.e. hand everyone a program with a color coded tag attached to it. the color indicates the sequence of activities that the group would follow).

Address Telescope Etiquette with Students

  • Show students how to approach the telescope with their hands behind their backs. That way, they will not be tempted to touch and accidentally adjust the telescope.
  • Get assistance from an older student or a parent to stand near the telescope to ensure that the telescope remains properly focused.

Tap into the Parents as Resources

  • Encourage parents to bring their telescopes and binoculars.
  • Find out what astronomical skills or interests parents may have. Have them lead their own station or component of the event.
  • Prepare the families for the event by sending home an astronomy activity to work on together at home prior to the star party.

Extra Fun Stuff

  • Have the students dress in alien and “spacey” costumes to get the spirit going!
  • Serve warm beverages and snacks.
  • Have students who’ve learned about the night sky lead the star party by being the “teachers” for others.
  • Have a pot-luck dinner before the star party.

Fun Star Party Ideas

Project ASTRO partners have come up with a range of ideas to make their star parties special and fun. Here are a few ideas you might want to try.

Do the star party as scavenger hunt. For example, ask student to find a red and a blue star, a planet, and a star cluster. Have students make star finders and tell them which objects to find before the star party.

Include food: Have a “star-b-que” around the campfire, a pizza party, or serve “spacy” food

Have a meteor shower party. (Meteor showers come at the same time each year. Lists of the best ones can be found in many astronomy text or guide books.)

Do naked eye observing (a good set of guidelines for this can be found in The Universe at Your Fingertips).

Include indoors and outside astronomy activity stations along with the telescope observing.

Give students “ASTRO Boxes” containing activities or tasks to do during the star party. Have each student decorate a shoe or shirt box and take it to the star party. Place several activities inside (for example, have students create a constellation, count the number of stars they see, or record the phase of the moon). Students do the activities with a partner or family member during the star party.

Camp out or have a sleep-over at the school.

Tell constellation myths from different cultures around a campfire. Have students create plays about the constellation myths and act them out for families or other students.

Hold the star party at a high school or community college. Invite older students to help.

Do several smaller parties throughout the year at school, or in front lawns around the neighborhood.

Take the students to a very dark site, away from city lights. For some students, this will be the first time they’ve seen real darkness.