The Astronomers are Coming for Our Children!
Hawaii is hosting the largest meeting of professional astronomers in the world later this year. Although the 29th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union is more than 50 days away, the group is already extending an invitation to local schools to take part in some world-class science education programs.
The IAU has been around since 1919, but most people aren't familiar with it. But many people are familiar with its controversial decision in 2006 to demote Pluto from planet status, which has been debated in both scientific and pop culture terms ever since (including a 2014 debate on the topic at Harvard, which ended with a popular vote saying Pluto is a planet anyway).
Suffice it to say, for better or worse, most of the work that goes on at the General Assembly doesn't make headlines (nor start schoolyard fights).
The decision to bring the IAU to Hawaii was a big deal, in part because the General Assembly is only held every three years. The announcement was made in 2009, with Hawaii prevailing "against very strong competition from two other sites."
"The selection of Honolulu is a reflection of Hawaii's importance in the astronomical world," said Rolf Kudritzki, who was then director of the UH Institute for Astronomy. And IAU's president at the time Robert Williams added: "The Pacific Rim has had an explosion of astronomical activity in the past two decades with the focus of a great deal of that activity on the observatories in Hawaii."
Of course, the decision to build the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii was also made in 2009, only a few months later, beating out Chile.
(I think if the general public had been as aware of the intense global competition to be the site of the TMT back then as they are about the objections to its construction today, all of Hawaii would be cheering for the telescope like it was Jasmine Trias.)
The General Assembly will be held at the Hawaii Convention Center from August 3-14. Attendance is expected to exceed 4,000 attendees hailing from over 76 countries. And organizers say it will "likely include the largest astronomy-related exhibition ever held at an IAU General Assembly."
While the meeting will be the venue for some serious science, they will also be making a special effort to support the local community.
"As part of this summer's IAU meeting, there will be free programs for school groups and individual students at the convention center -- including paid buses,"announced Roy Gal, outreach coordinator for the Institute for Astronomy. "[Also] the opportunity to get astronomers into classrooms."
The American Astronomical Society, which has been running an Education and Public Outreach program alongside General Assembly meetings since 2012, notes that:
AAS meetings attract many companies, space missions and research institutions that choose to exhibit. The representatives are only too happy to volunteer one afternoon to lead a hands-on science activity with local students... Presenting opportunities to local students to interact with world-renowned astronomers, engineers and scientists could have a significant impact on their future.
"This type of outreach occurs at all AAS meetings, and since this IAU meeting is run by AAS, they are doing the same, with my help," Gal explains. "We expect there to be enough slots for 12 school groups (of 15-20 students per group) each Wednesday (6 morning and 6 afternoon), maybe more depending on how many exhibitors participate."
The school group visits (which are also open to home-schooled students) are only the first of many outreach programs to open its doors. Students will get hands-on demonstrations and opportunities to talk with leading scientists and engineers at the forefront of space research.
Participation is first come, first served, so signing up early is recommended.
For more information, visit the official XXIX IAU General Assembly website, the Institute for Astronomy website, of connect with the IFA on Facebook or on Twitter.
Photo by Joson Images/AAS.