A Glimpse into the World of Subaru's Outreach Scientist During the 2009 International Year of Astronomy

May 19, 2010

"Reach out and touch someone" relates to more than telephone communications. It could be the motto for outreach staff worldwide. Astronomer Dr. Kumiko Usuda lives this principle in her role as Subaru's outreach scientist. Her work focuses on designing and implementing ways to communicate the value of astronomy to the local community. A glimpse into her world of outreach, especially during the 2009 International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009), highlights the variety of skills, connections, and hard work that it takes to be effective in this arena.

Education is at the core of Dr. Usuda's approach. After teaching her daughter's preschool class in Hilo over 5 years ago, she realized the importance of promoting astronomy education. She said, "Astronomy is a very interesting and exciting field ... Astronomy teaches students how to think very logically and see other points of view ... To see other worlds is very important, just as it is on Earth, to see different countries, cultures, and people, to enlarge our view." She credits her children with inspiring her educational efforts: "Thanks to my children, I can do outreach for children." When she became Subaru's outreach scientist in 2006, she developed interesting and popular programs for her visits to K-12 classrooms in Hilo and Japan as well as for remote and "live" presentations at Subaru's base facility.

Her educational efforts extend beyond the classroom to the general public and local community. She has given workshops at Onizuka Science Day at the University of Hawaii at Hilo since 2005; been a science educator in Journey Through the Universe; and presented astronomy-related talks at the Mauna Kea VIS (Visitor Information Station), `Imiloa Astronomy Center, and the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center.

She encourages learning in creative, interesting ways. For instance, she designed a poster entitled "400 Years of the Astronomical Telescope" to promote Science and Technology Week, sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in Japan. With colorful pictures and compact text, the poster succinctly displays the history of the telescope from Galileo to Subaru. Over 150,000 copies were distributed in Japan through museums and planetaria, and an additional 80,000 were included as inserts in the magazine "Science Window" for K-12 science teachers. Although an English version was optional, Usuda wanted to produce one for distribution in Hilo and other places in the world. Now in its second printing, this poster was initially given out in Hawaii at annual events such as Onizuka Science Day, AstroDay, and Journey Through the Universe, but it captured the attention of IYA international, which distributed several hundred copies worldwide.

Many of Usuda's skills in design and organization have converged and become more visible in the projects that she leads as Subaru's representative to the Mauna Kea Observatories Outreach Committee (MKOOC). As part of MKOOC's collective mission to coordinate and organize outreach efforts of the observatories on Mauna Kea, Usuda has played a major role in creating activities and organizing local events to mark the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

IYA2009 was a yearlong celebration of astronomy that coincided with the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's first recorded astronomical observation with a telescope. Coordinated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), its goals were to communicate how astronomy enriches all human cultures and to inform the public about astronomy's discoveries and role in science education.

In line with these goals, Usuda developed a Cosmic Poster Contest geared to K-12 students on the Big Island, challenging them to create posters that showed the link between astronomy and Hawaiian culture. Her attendance at a conference of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 2008 stimulated the idea; MKOOC approved the project in June of that year; and informal connections with people and organizations across the island supported its implementation. Prominent astronomical artist and longtime Hawaii resident Jon Lomberg agreed to serve as a judge for the contest, and KTA Super Stores, a Big Island grocery store chain, became a co-sponsor, generously providing space for collection of the entries and display of the winners' posters. Usuda comments, "I couldn't have done it without KTA." Proud parents of the winners came from as far away as Kona to participate in the awards ceremony held during the 2009 AstroDay celebration in Hilo. The event connected children and parents with astronomy, Hawaiian culture, other community organizations, and each other.

Usuda's children sparked another one of her creative activities for IYA2009—Mauna Kea Brand Astronomy Trading Cards. Usuda knew that children all over the world love the game of Pokémon, a spinoff of which were trading cards that kids enthusiastically collected. For over a year, she had wanted to develop astronomy trading cards that would familiarize kids with Mauna Kea. But how could she motivate kids to collect them? Drawing on her knowledge kids' games, she fashioned the idea of developing trading cards in suits, each dealing with a different area of astronomy: telescopes, the solar system, the milky way, and galaxies. It was a fortunate coincidence that the 13 cards in each suit of a playing card deck matched the number of observatories on Mauna Kea. The trading cards could function as playing cards and be obtained in game-like fashion, gathering some of them at locations throughout a local event related to astronomy. The cards have images with brief, informative descriptions from each of the observatories. The cards have been in demand since their initial distribution and will now be sold by nonprofit organizations contributing to astronomy education in Hawaii, e.g., the Visitor Information Station, the Onizuka Space Center. Usuda hopes that the cards will reach people even further: "I am dreaming of distribution in museums outside of Hawaii. It was a very good MKOOC project."

The inauguration of the cards come during the Galileo Block Party, MKOOC's premier IYA 2009 event in Hilo. Dr. Usuda, with the help of MKOOC's and Subaru's Galileo Block Party Committee, spent countless hours and many months meticulously organizing the wide range of details involved in putting on this large public event, e.g., insurance, traffic control, entertainment, budgeting, permits. She was particularly glad that Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi agreed to participate in a talk story session that she designed to foster communication with local students.

Astronomy took center stage at the Galileo Block Party. All observatories, the VIS, `Imiloa and some local organizations participated in event. Subaru hosted popular base facility tours and distributed hundreds of brochures, videos, and Mauna Kea Brand Astronomy Trading Cards. The enthusiasm and interest of the guests—children, relatives, visitors—was palpable. The event demonstrated MKOOC's appreciation of the Big Island's support for astronomical activities and showed the fun and value of astronomy. It created another path of connection between the astronomical and local community.

Local outreach activities often have national and international implications. The Galileo Block Party was connected to Galilean Nights, a cornerstone project of IYA. The History of the Telescope posters have been distributed worldwide, and Mauna Kea Brand Astronomy Trading Cards may also circulate globally. Children and adults alike spread their enthusiasm and knowledge about astronomy.

Outreach is a two-way street. It requires people who are receptive to what is offered. But it also needs the skill, creativity, and dedication of people like Dr. Usuda to stimulate the public to connect with opportunities for learning. She not only educates about astronomy but also communicates a passion for science and learning. She sums up her own reward for engaging in outreach: "By doing a lot of projects and making them successful, I could connect with many people. My world is broadened."

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