Spreading the Word - Western Style: Education and Public Awareness Programmes at Perth Observatory

James Bigg, PASA, 14 (2), in press.

Spreading the Word - Western Style: Education and Public Awareness Programmes at Perth Observatory*

James Biggs (rbiggsjd@cc.curtin.edu.au)

Perth Observatory, Walnut Rd, Bickley 6076, Western Australia

Abstract: Since the attempt to close it in 1987, Perth Observatory has undertaken many initiatives to increase community awareness of, and education in, astronomy. Factors such as geographic isolation, the desire to maintain some level of scientific output, and being a part of the Western Australian Public Service are both a help and a hindrance to our activities. An overview of these activities is presented with particular attention to the impact of the environmental factors mentioned above. Anecdotal and objective measures of the success of these activities are also presented along with suggestions for future initiatives.

Keywords: astronomy education

1 Introduction

Several factors both constrain and present opportunities for the education and public awareness programmes at Perth Observatory. Probably the most important factor affecting the activity of any Western Australia-based organisation is geography. The state is large and it is only in recent times with the advent of high-speed communications technology and convenient public air transport that intra- and inter-state communication has become straightforward. A positive effect of geographic isolation is an increase in the effectiveness of service delivery simply because of the local reliance on local resources. Also, the centralisation of the Western Australian population in the state capital city, Perth, assists the efficiency of service delivery, and naturally defines our audience. Furthermore, the general community-wide reliance on local resources reduces the need for the Observatory to directly compete with better resourced national and international institutions.

Another factor that impinges upon our operation is our employment by the Western Australia Public Service. This imposes constraints on our ability to quickly respond to new opportunities and challenges because of bureaucratic inertia. However, a benefit of this system is that its procedures and practices tend to make financial and human resource management predictable, fair and accountable. This leads to an efficiency in the sense that tested and positive practices are usually in place somewhere in the public service so that there is no need for us to develop them in every new initiative. In practice we have found that the major restriction to our scientific and educational activities are not those resulting from our government employment, but the ubiquitous financial, temporal and staffing limitations.

Our need to continue scientific programmes tends to limit the extent of our educational activities just because of our small staff numbers and their participation in both programmes. However, continuation of the scientific programmes not only has the virtue of furthering astronomical research, but it also serves to maintain the Observatory skills base at a professional level. Involvement of professional staff is emphasised in our marketing and promotion, and this appears to be an attractive feature to users of our services.

2 History

To understand the situation at Perth Observatory, at the time when this material was originally presented, and the possibilities for the future, it is important to understand its history.

Perth Observatory was founded in 1896. Its original functions included time-keeping, fundamental surveying, training surveyors, meteorology and the determination of accurate stellar positions (Hutchison 1980, Utting 1989). However, the isolation and small population base has meant that funding is a recurring problem, especially when the global economy is under stress. Many times funding has been very low and the Observatory has often been threatened with closure (Utting 1993; 1994).

In 1987 the threat of closure loomed large because the government of the day wanted to save money and could not see the relevance of the institution. Closure was staved off partly because of the large unsolicited and quite strident outcry from the public of Western Australia at the threat to a respected and somewhat treasured local institution. Also, local amateurs, and local, interstate and international scientific colleagues made effective representations to those in power.

Eventually, Perth Observatory survived the crisis but had its staffing level reduced from 23 to 9. An education programme was established to address the state government's concern about its direct public relevance and to give it a more community and "business" orientation. Thus Perth Observatory exists today as Australia's sole remaining fully-functional, state government-funded astronomical observatory with three core business activities of scientific research# , education, and information.

3 Status up to 1996 January 25

For the decade before this date the Observatory was a part of the Department of State Services and this had a strong bearing on its activities and capabilities. Table 1 shows the present general classification of the staff at Perth Observatory. It also shows that their number has gradually increased to the equivalent of 11 from 9 at the end of 1987. Contrary to the impression given by the concentration of staff in the astronomical and technical areas only about 25% of the Observatory effort is expended in astronomical research. Administration and maintenance is where the major effort is concentrated, consuming approximately 40% of time with education and information provision accounting for about 35% of staff time and resources.

TABLE 1. Present staff at Perth Observatory

 4  Astronomers            Dr James Biggs                                  Mr Peter Birch                                  Mr Ralph Martin                                 Mr Andrew Williams¶    2  Astronomical           Mr Greg Lowe             Assistants             Mr Thomas Smith        2  Technical /            Mr Arie Verveer          Maintenance            Mr John Pearse         2  Administration         Mrs Carmel Borg                                 Mrs Janet Bell         1  Cleaner/Gardener       Mrs Sheryle Smith /                             Mr David Tiggerdine    ¶Employed on a yearly contract from 1995,     October.                                        

The large administration and maintenance component is mainly a reflection of the Observatory's public service status. The major benefits to arise from this position are: strict health and safety standards and support, training, accounting and computer support, and a somewhat reliable budget. Also, we benefit from public service procedures, accountability standards and detailed planning requirements. However, these factors come at the cost of substantial administrative overhead and their implementation and quality can fluctuate depending on the political climate.

A definite disadvantage of being a part of the Department of State Services was the lack of business incentive as all income generated was deposited in the state's consolidated revenue fund. The turnover, defined as the total income derived by the Observatory for goods and services, in 1994/95 was approximately $50,000. However, the notional profit that takes into account staff costs, depreciation etc, was not calculated because of the lack of financial incentive.

One particular initiative that has led to direct benefits for the Observatory is the state government's requirement of the formulation and implementation of performance indicators. Not only do they facilitate the monitoring of progress and quality of an activity, but they can also provide concrete proof of service provision. The latter is an important consideration given that the Observatory's existence largely depends on whether the government views it as useful.

4 Education and Community Information Programmes

Geographic isolation and centralisation are important factors affecting the Observatory's activities. Isolation affects all Western Australia-based institutions and raises a degree of self-reliance and inter-dependence within them. Thus within Western Australia, the Observatory is viewed as the most accessible source of astronomical information and not only are we contacted for information, but we are often asked to verify information from external sources. Our location in Perth, with the greatest population concentration in Western Australia, reinforces the accessibility factor and promotes a general efficiency in service delivery.

In line with Western Australian state government policy, a charge is levied, whenever practical, for all services provided. Sometimes there is consumer opposition, but usually customers value the service because of the charge! However, when the Observatory was a part of the Department of State Services most charges were modest as there was little incentive to be more "commercial" because of the aforementioned deposit of all income in the government's consolidated revenue fund.

The many and varied education and information services provided by Perth Observatory are outlined below.

4.1 Public Information

Much of our information provision is conducted over the telephone. Usually about ten telephone queries from the Western Australian community require our attention each day. However, after high-profile events such as the passage of the bolide over Perth in the early hours of 1995, May 1 nearly 360 calls were logged during working hours on that day alone. A recorded message service that outlines things of interest currently visible to the naked eye has been established to minimise the time spent on these relatively routine enquiries. Over 3,200 calls were received by this service in financial year 1994/95 (Dept of State Services Annual Report, 1995). In early 1996, we also established a home page on the World Wide Web in order to provide information about Perth Observatory and general astronomical information relevant to the public of WA.

A related activity is the answering of mail and facsimile correspondence. Sometimes this can be quite demanding, particularly in providing astronomical information pertaining to natural lighting conditions (sunrise and set times etc) as often requested by the legal profession and the police. In fact, many similar requests from all manner of business enterprises are received each year.

In order to assist primary school students with their astronomy studies a project kit has been assembled and is marketed from the Observatory. It mainly deals with the Solar System as this is the subject of most enquires. The kit contains 17 A4-size fact sheets and 12 A4-size full-colour photographs. For those requiring more detailed astronomical information, an annual Astronomy Handbook specific to Western Australia is available. The Observatory assists in the production and marketing of the handbook which contains such things as basic sky maps to facilitate object identification, rise and set times and general astronomical information. The Observatory also retails sundry astronomical products such as posters and slides. Star and planet stickers and refrigerator magnets are other popular and inexpensive sale items.

4.2 Media Contacts

Western Australia has relatively few media organisations, but even if they are not locally owned, geographic isolation requires that they at least have a regional-office presence. This presence has facilitated the establishment of sound contacts between the Observatory and virtually all media organisations with a local office, which in turn has led to many mutually beneficial interactions.

The Observatory contributes a weekly "Night Sky" column, and daily rise and set times, for the "West Australian" newspaper. On average, we conduct two television or newspaper interviews per month, and, four major (approximately greater than 10 min) and ten minor (approximately less than 10 min) radio interviews per month. This not only provides information to the wider community, but also serves as free and effective advertising for the Observatory, and further emphasises our role in the local community and builds our relationship with the media.

4.3 Practical Astronomy

One of the most requested and, experientially, most rewarding services we provide is the actual viewing of the night sky with telescopes. Perth Observatory responds to this demand by not only providing night time star viewing, but several other related activities such as day time tours of the Observatory, lectures, practical training and astronomical resource workshops.

An important aspect of this educational effort is the involvement of professional astronomical staff. This not only gives the staff insight into the needs of the public they serve, but also imbues the activity with a professional quality control consistent with the Observatory's mission statement that in part states "... provide correct and up-to-date information.".

4.3.1 Night Tours

These are conducted for approximately seven nights per month around First Quarter, in the non-winter months, at the Bickley observatory site. Two, consecutive ninety-minute sessions catering for 24 visitors each are conducted by two staff members. Essentially, the visitors are shown the Moon, and a further four or five objects such as any available bright planet, stars, clusters or nebulae through 11" and 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. The last part of a tour is a visit to the 24" Lowell Telescope. This is quite popular because visitors get to view our largest telescope and are exposed to our research activities.

An important component of this activity is the interaction of the staff with the visitors, and the attendant answering of the wide ranging astronomical questions from the visitors. These night tours are very popular - over 2,000 visitors attend each year, and demand is increasing. Ongoing customer surveys attest to their success as over 95% of respondents state they are satisfied, or very satisfied, with the service they receive (Dept of State Services Annual Report, 1995).

This success comes at some cost as there is always a long waiting list. Also, all visitors must make a booking for these tours and in accordance with our strict quality control measures we guarantee visitors a view of the stars on our tours, so their visit is rescheduled if atmospheric conditions are unfavourable. This booking and rescheduling scheme places enormous demands on our administration and this level of night tour activity is probably at the limit of our current capability.

4.3.2 Day Tours

Over 3,000 people each year visit the Observatory for a 90-minute guided day tour. In these tours visitors are shown the museum/display area, which contains general astronomy information and some historical Perth Observatory artefacts; view the 13" Astrographic and the 24" Lowell Telescopes, and receive a brief demonstration of their operation; and then enjoy a 30 minute "Highlights of the Universe" slide show. As with the night tours, experienced staff conduct these tours and answer the numerous questions posed by the visitors. Mostly, these visits are undertaken by school and seniors groups.

In order to increase accessibility we conduct a day tour every Sunday at 3pm. In contrast to all other tours, no booking is required for this activity and over 1,000 people attend each year. Generally, we recommend that visitors participate in a day tour in order to gain a better appreciation of all the facilities at the Observatory site.

4.3.3 Astronomy Field Nights

In this activity the Observatory transports portable 8", 10" and 11" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes to rural communities - typically to the local high school. A 30-minute slide show usually precedes the 120 minutes of star viewing. Transportation, accommodation and maintenance costs are considerable for this activity. However, this is offset by the extremely positive response from these particularly geographically disadvantaged communities. This activity has even received praise in the state parliament (Hansard, 1996). An organised programme of astronomy field nights is a relatively new initiative from the Observatory, however, over 1,000 people attended the 10 conducted in financial year 1994/95. We intend to expand this service in recognition of the state-based nature of our funding and to redress the educational and entertainment disadvantages incurred by the rural community.

4.3.4 Practical Training

Over 130 first and second year tertiary education students get basic training in telescope use and observational astronomy from Perth Observatory each year. A further twenty more senior-level students (up to doctoral level) receive detailed training and project supervision each year.

4.3.5 Lectures

Over 50 lectures and talks on a wide range of topics are presented each year to a diverse range of audiences such as university colloquia attendees, high and primary schools, clubs, societies and community groups. This activity can place a strain on resources due to the wide range of subjects and depth of coverage required. However, for general astronomy talks there is an efficiency due to the general repetition of this type of presentation. Perth Observatory is currently not involved in formal basic astronomy courses because this service is adequately provided by local amateur societies and the TAFE system.

4.3.6 Astronomy Resources Workshop

This workshop is another relatively new initiative started toward the end of 1994. It is targeted toward school science development officers and attempts to more efficiently deliver basic astronomical information and teaching capability. We hope that through their professional networks, these key members of the state Education Department will efficiently disseminate the astronomical information and training we have imparted to them, rather than Observatory staff directly interacting with each of the over 1,100 schools in Western Australia.

The workshop consists of informal tutorials and practical sessions of between three to five hours total duration. In that time, the basics of astronomy are discussed; the resources available at Perth Observatory are outlined; other resources such as our weekly newspaper astronomy article, the annual Astronomy Handbook and planisphere operation are explained; and hands-on operation and assembly of a small telescope is undertaken. If time and conditions permit, the attendees' enthusiasm is further enhanced by a telescope star-viewing session.

5 Status from 1996 January 26

At the end of 1996, January the Observatory (and its budget) was formally transferred to the Department of Conservation and Land Management. At first sight this might seem unusual given that conservation is the core business of this department. However, the Observatory has been placed in this department's Science and Information Division that employs over 50 scientists and has a mission statement that in part states "... committed to providing up-to-date and scientifically sound information ...". This is not inconsistent with the Observatory's mission statement and we should benefit from their understanding and managerial experience of scientific endeavours.

There are also many other advantages to the Observatory in this new placement including, wide area network capability and support, access to an effective marketing section, and nett appropriation. The latter is a real "business" incentive as it means that the Observatory can retain the income it earns. However, recent income figures are difficult to interpret and none are provided herein because the transition to our new parent department occurred midway through a financial year, and a large number of free activities promoting the Observatory's centenary were undertaken in 1996.

6 Centenary

During 1996, Perth Observatory celebrated the centenary of its foundation. Many activities were conducted including: a new logo competition; landscaping of the Observatory grounds; an exhibition, concert and night of star viewing in collaboration with the National Trust of Western Australia at the Old Observatory (the site of the original Perth Observatory); opening of a modest remote-controlled telescope; an extensive schedule (about 5 weeks) of astronomy field nights; free star viewing at metropolitan shopping centres ("Carpark" Astronomy); and an official centenary celebration in 1996, September where a stone plaque was formally unveiled by the state premier. Probably the most significant event for Astronomical Society of Australia members was Perth Observatory's service as host institution for the Society's Annual General Meeting in Perth during 1996, July - the first time this meeting has been conducted in Western Australia in the 30-year history of the Society.

7 Future

Where possible, the activities discussed above will be continued and extended. We will also continue to monitor our performance in order to provide the best service possible. A major project we are keen to realise is the establishment of an high-speed communication link into the internet. This will enable us to provide on-line services, and may even include a small amount of observing time on our remote-controlled telescope.

8 Acknowledgements

The success of the programmes described above would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the Perth Observatory staff, the support from the Department of Conservation and Land Management and the Department of State Services, and for the 100 years of support and generosity from the taxpayers of the state of Western Australia.

Annual Report, WA Department of State Services, 1995.

Hansard, WA state parliament, Budget Estimates Committee 1996, June 4, p1.

Hutchison, D. 1980, Early Days Journal (Royal Western Australian Historical Society), 8, 96

Utting, M. 1989, Cooke's Perth Observatory, p. 8 (Bickley, Western Australia: Perth Observatory)

Utting, M. 1993, Astronomy in WA Volume I: 1896 to 1912, p.103 (Bickley, Western Australia: Perth Observatory)

Utting, M. 1994, Astronomy in WA Volume II: 1912 to 1940, p. 9 (Bickley, Western Australia: Perth Observatory)