Major expansion of Lick Observatory education programs will benefit Bay Area students

Scientific Teaching through Astronomy Research (STARs), a suite of new outreach and education programs at UC’s Lick Observatory, will reach a diverse population of K-12 and college-age students

Lick Observatory
Lick Observatory is located atop Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose and is operated by UC Observatories, headquartered at UC Santa Cruz. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded a $5.4 million grant to the University of California Observatories (UCO) to support a major expansion of the education and outreach programs at UC’s Lick Observatory.

The Scientific Teaching through Astronomy Research (STARs) programs funded by the grant will increase the number and diversity of students who are able to take part in astronomy activities, both at the observatory on Mt. Hamilton and in local Bay Area communities. The aim is to provide inspiring and transformative experiences to a diverse population of students at different stages in the “STEM pipeline” leading to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

UCO Director Bruce Macintosh said STARs will establish partnerships with Bay Area community colleges and California State University (CSU) campuses to enable their students to use the powerful telescopes at Lick Observatory for educational and research activities.

“We want to broaden access to this kind of science, giving more students opportunities to use real science-grade equipment and learn research skills in ways that will help them through the STEM pipeline, whether they want to follow astronomy or some other path,” Macintosh said.

Other STARs programs will “bring the mountain to the students,” he said, through outreach activities in Bay Area communities featuring portable telescopes, visiting astronomers, and engaging activities. These programs would reach students at younger ages through activities at K-12 schools and community libraries.

“In almost every astronomer’s backstory there is a moment at a telescope when they see something they saw in a book before, and now they realize it’s real and it’s something they can study for themselves,” Macintosh said. “Our goal is to bring that experience to as many people as possible.”

Implementing these programs will require the observatory to hire dedicated staff for education and outreach and refurbish some of the historic infrastructure at Lick Observatory. Some of the dormitory facilities, for example, need to be restored and modernized to accommodate more visitors staying overnight on the mountain.

“Lick Observatory is an amazing place, but it’s more than 130 years old,” Macintosh said. “If we’re going to do these programs, we’ll need places for students to sleep, so restoring and modernizing the aging infrastructure is an important part of this effort.”

Founded in 1888, Lick Observatory remains an active research facility at the forefront of astronomy, with modern telescopes and innovative cameras and instruments developed and used by UC astronomers. Its location just east of San Jose makes it accessible to a large and diverse population, and the beautiful historic site contributes to the observatory’s power to inspire and inform students and the public. Lick currently hosts a range of visitor opportunities and activities during its Summer Series program, including night-time lectures, concerts, and telescope viewings.

STARs will build on the successes of existing astronomy education programs developed by faculty at UC Santa Cruz and will work in collaboration with them. These include La Noche de las Estrellas, a popular Spanish-language program at Lick Observatory for high school students and their families, and Lamat, a highly successful mentoring program for students from community colleges.

UCO’s Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators (ISEE), which received a presidential award for excellence in STEM mentoring, will provide training for the teachers, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars participating in the STARs programs, in addition to providing expertise in curriculum development and assessment. ISEE Director Lisa Hunter and her team will lead STARs in the short term as the observatory spins up the new programs and begins hiring permanent staff.

Planning for the new programs has been a long-term effort, and Macintosh acknowledged the contributions of previous UCO directors, including Michael Bolte, Sandra Faber, Claire Max, and Constance Rockosi.

“I came into this job with an interest in broadening access to science, and to have a grant like this come through right off the bat is pretty awesome,” he said. “We are deeply grateful to the Moore Foundation for their steadfast commitment to science and astronomy.”

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements, and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area.