Lick Observatory hosts Latino students and parents for night of astronomy

Evening event for high school students and their family members, called La Noche de las Estrellas, was the observatory's first Spanish-language event


Viewing the stars through Lick Observatory's historic 36-inch Refractor Telescope was a highlight of the evening for many students during a visit to Lick Observatory organized by UCSC astronomers. (Photo by Rob Knight)


High school students from Watsonville, Salinas, Gonzales, and Soledad learned about telescopes, astronomy, and college opportunities during La Noche de las Estrellas. (Photo by Rob Knight)


Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics, entranced the students with the story of the cosmic origins of gold. (Photo by Rob Knight)


Students were able to view the sun through a special solar telescope. (Photo by Ilse Ungeheuer)

On a recent Friday night at Lick Observatory, high school students from Watsonville, Salinas, Gonzales, and Soledad peered through powerful telescopes at stunning views of the moon and stars. They were invited along with parents and other family members as part of an effort by Lick Observatory and UC Santa Cruz to reach out to Spanish-speaking communities and encourage student interest in the sciences.

"One of our goals is to inspire young people in these communities to get interested in science," said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. "It was important to include their families in this event so they understand that there are opportunities for their kids in science. We talked about the importance of college and tried to make sure they know that this university welcomes them and values their culture."

Ramirez-Ruiz was among the speakers at La Noche de las Estrellas, Lick Observatory's first event with presentations in Spanish, which took place on Friday, September 29. He entranced the students with the story of the cosmic origins of gold. (On follow-up questionnaires, Ramirez-Ruiz was the overwhelming choice for the person students would most like to see again and spend more time with.)

The event was organized by UCSC astronomers Sandra Faber and David Koo, who provided funding for it through a research grant from the National Science Foundation. They and several other UCSC astronomers, including UC Observatories director Claire Max, were on hand to interact with the visiting students and their parents.

MESA Program

Faber and Koo worked with UCSC's Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program to connect with teachers and students in high schools where MESA supports educational enrichment programs. Throughout the evening, participants toured the observatory in small groups, learning about the telescopes and engaging in a variety of activities, including observing with amateur astronomer telescopes as well as with Lick Observatory's 36-inch Refractor and 40-inch Nickel Telescopes.

"When I looked at the moon, I felt a little spark go inside of me," said Monserrat Soto, a student from Alisal High School in Salinas. "We've all seen the moon, but seeing it in a telescope is a whole different perspective."

Bilingual UC Santa Cruz students served as tour guides for students and parents. "They had to be comfortable translating, because we felt it was really important to engage with the parents at this event," said Yulianna Ortega, director of STEM Diversity Programs, who recruited the guides. "They're mostly seniors who have been doing undergraduate research in the sciences, and giving back to their community is important to them."

Future events

In addition to having presentations in Spanish and translators for the small-group activities, organizers had observatory signs and videos translated into Spanish. Faber said they will be offering the same program again next year with funding from the NSF grant. "We plan to do more outreach to Spanish-speaking communities and offer more of these kinds of events in the future at Lick Observatory, so this is a good start," Faber said.

"We want to demonstrate our interest in the talent that is in their community," added Ramirez-Ruiz. "These are talented students who were invited, and we want them to know that they belong and that we want them here at UC Santa Cruz. We are constantly seeking the best talent, and it's important for us to reach out to those who might not see themselves as scientists or be aware of the opportunities."

In preparation for La Noche de las Estrellas, graduate students in the astronomy program at UC Santa Cruz brought telescopes and other demonstrations to the participating high schools to introduce the students to some basic concepts in astronomy, including how telescopes work.

"MESA did a great job organizing all this, and the students were enthusiastic and full of questions," said graduate student Asher Wasserman. "They were very inquisitive and curious."

MESA academic coordinator Ana Rodarte said they are already getting requests for more events like this. "The students were not expecting the treat they got," she said. "It's great that we're going to have another opportunity to offer this event."

Ambassador Mauricio Toussaint and others from the Mexican Consulate in San Jose attended the event, along with officials from the UC Office of the President and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Jesus Gonzales, director of the Institute of Astronomy at UNAM (and a former student of Faber's who earned his Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz), gave a talk on the history of astronomy, from the Mayans to recent research. The event took place the day after a signing ceremony on the UCSC campus establishing a student exchange program between UC Santa Cruz and UNAM.