Discovering a City's Stars

Girl looking through telescope, other children waiting

Everyone knows you can’t see stars in the city. This common knowledge is actually a common misconception – one the Franklin Institute decided to tackle head on. It’s a tall order, though, to help a city full of people unaware of what they can discover by looking up.  The Institute needed to find a way to engage many more people - people who wouldn’t normally be served by astronomy programs.

“We wanted to help people understand that no matter where you live in an urban environment, even though there is a lot of light at night that you may think makes it difficult for you to observe the skies, there’s still plenty of great of observing that can be done.” –Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer, Planetarium Programs Director, Franklin Institute

The solution? Meet people where they live. By reaching out to existing community–based organizations, the Franklin Institute is providing materials, training and support to groups already well-known by their constituents, and already well-positioned to provide services.  That such churches, cultural centers, libraries and playgrounds are non-traditional sites for STEM is all part of the plan. City Skies: Linking Neighborhoods with NASA through Urban Astronomy empowers organizations to be resources for astronomy education in their neighborhood.

Community partners receive tools - telescopes, tripods, sun spotters and resource kits - plus training in how to use them, tips on how to host star parties and solar viewings, orientations to the seasonal skies, where to go for NASA resources, and so on. Throughout the process, the Franklin Institute follows the partner organizations’ lead in determining the needs of their audiences, and the best type of programming.

People in Philadelphia are enjoying the sky, and learning with their neighbors. The City Skies Partners hold about 45 public astronomy events throughout the city each year. The City Skies network even makes it possible for the annual Philadelphia Science Festival to be truly city-wide, with simultaneous Astronomy Night events at more than 30 sites.

The Franklin Institute wanted the participants to take ownership of the project – and not need the Institute. By providing tools, training, and support, they aimed to build a level of self-sufficiency and sustainability that would make each site a true partner in providing astronomy education. The level to which City Skies has succeeded is perhaps best illustrated by the Hunting Park Community Science Network. As a result of their participation in City Skies, five partner organizations teamed up, brought in new organizations, and created the Network to continue to create a range of positive science experiences  “to engage and excite neighborhood residents in the wonders of science.”

The sky is not the only place to find stars. With City Skies, NASA and the Franklin Institute are helping tomorrow’s bright stars of STEM shine.