The stars at night really are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas at the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas. Each year 80,000 visitors from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Observatory to attend one of the three-times-a-week star parties. Many experience, for the first time, the humbling, splendor of a truly dark night sky. Over the last several years, the Observatory has experienced dramatic increases in visitation demonstrating the public’s appetite for science education, in general, and interest in the night sky, in particular. This increasing interest in astronomy is, ironically, occurring at a time when most of humanity’s skies are becoming increasingly light-polluted frustrating this natural interest. Dark skies and knowledgeable education and outreach staff are an important resource in maintaining the public’s interest in astronomy, support for astronomical research, and local tourism.
This year Observatory educators were inspired by the observance of the International Year of Light to promote healthy outdoor lighting through its popular Astronomy Day distance learning program. This program reaches tens of thousands of K-12 students in Texas and other states with a message of how they can take action to preserve dark skies. As well, more than a thousand Boy Scouts visiting during the summer months receive a special program, which includes activities focusing on good lighting practices, thereby earning them credits toward an astronomy badge.
The Observatory also offers a half-a-dozen K-12 teacher professional development workshops onsite each year, which provide about 90 teachers with dark skies information, best-practice lighting demonstrations, and red flashlights. Multi-year workshops for National Park and State of Texas Parks personnel are offered on dark sky preservation and sky interpretation at McDonald and a Dark Skies fund for retrofitting lights in the surrounding area has been established. The Observatory also uses social media to post videos of eclipses and other celestial events that help non-astronomers remember how important it is to protect our dark skies.
AUTHORS/INSTITUTIONS: S.L. Preston, F. Cianciolo, M. Wetzel, K. Finkelstein, W. Wren, C. Nance, McDonald Observatory, The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, UNITED STATES