Beyond the Lecture Hall: Making the most of a university astronomy club

The night sky is shared by every person on our planet. It is our most common heritage, and throughout our lives it never ceases to impart wonder and wisdom onto us. 

As a member of a university/college with an interest in astronomy, there is much that you can do to affect a positive change in the level of astronomy literacy and general science interest among those around you, and potentially your community at large.

I have spent a little over a decade volunteering for astronomy outreach. I have worked at four public observatories and one planetarium between the US and UK. Nothing recharges me more after a long week of studying than getting out and looking up at the stars. 

Credit: Alex Dutoy

There is no step too small

Being proactive in bringing the wonder of astronomy to those around you doesn’t require expensive observatories or even telescopes! You don’t need to leave campus or have a big audience either — your friends and classmates are a great place to get started.

Learning the constellations (and perhaps their mythology too) can be an immensely rewarding and fun activity to share with your friends and peers. The best tool for the job is a proper red LED flashlight (or a good red gel filter on a white flashlight) and a skychart printout. Although it might be tempting, be mindful not to rely on an iPhone sky app, as your eyes require up to an hour to fully adapt to the dark sky. A peek at your phone or passing headlight will put you back to square one. Instead, study the constellations electronically first and then go outside to practice. Stellarium is a fantastic (and free) resource for doing just this — just don’t use its red option because it’s not good enough! 

The Beehive Cluster. Credit:

Once you’ve mastered some constellations, start showing them to your friends on cloudless nights. If you live in an area absolutely free from air traffic, then it might even be possible to use a green laser pointer to assist in your “sky tours”.

Want to see more? Grab a pair of binoculars and head out to a dark (but safe) part of campus. There is plenty to see with even a cheap pair of binoculars. In fact, there are a handful of star clusters and nebulae which are best viewed with binoculars, and not high-powered telescopes. Examples in the Northern Hemisphere include the Beehive Cluster and Sagittarius Star Cloud. Stellarium can also provide ideas for binocular viewing.

Set the mood

A quick peek on Youtube or any space-based website will give you the impression that astronomy carries a certain ambiance with it. The deep blue of the night sky, the rustling of the trees, dim red lights from courteous stargazers, and maybe even some music. Put together in the right way, stargazing can deliver a memorable and cathartic experience.

When it comes to atmospheric music to stargaze by, there are a few artists which to me stand out. First and foremost is the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. Their otherworldly melodies are breathtaking when paired with the stars. Olafur Arnalds, The Album Leaf, Jonsi, Stellardrone, August Wihlemsson, and The American Dollar are other great choices. For faster and more upbeat selections, try Jon Hopkins, Helios, M83, Hammock, and The xx.  I’ve even known some folks who complement their astrophotography sessions on those cold, bleak winter nights with a touch of death metal. The possibilities are endless.

Organization & Scope

One of the most important aspects of growing your astronomy club is leadership positions. You can’t do it all yourself! Getting organized with an executive role, secretary, observing director, and possibly treasurer are good first steps. Maybe even a graduate student representative! Taking opportunities when they come your way is important, but even more so is creating opportunities for others.

You may also seek out a member of your faculty who is willing to support you. Ideally, they may also provide you with equipment such as a mobile telescope or even access to an observatory if the university has one. If they can advocate for you and advertise your club to non-majors in introductory courses, that’s even better. 

Credit: XKCD

Accessibility is crucial. Are you going to be primarily an academic club that supports students, or are you going to be more outward-facing and work to educate members of your campus/community? Perhaps you start as the former and work your way to the latter? A mix of both? The important difference is how you communicate material. Nothing turns off a non-major more than technical jargon and over-the-top explanations. If you are not accessible to your guests, they will not be interested, or worse, actively dislike the club. So just don’t rant about senior-level nuclear physics exams in a circle with freshmen from literally anywhere, ok?

Let’s talk about scope for a moment. Outreach doesn’t mean having to leave your campus to talk about science. In fact, leaving campus while acting within the framework of a university club can be risky. If you leave the campus to do sunspot observing in a park wearing a branded hoodie and say you’re from so-and-so university, you are acting as a representative! Most universities and colleges have strict policies about who is allowed to act as a representative of the university outside the campus gates. Oftentimes that means that an astronomy club cannot present directly to the general public. The bottom line is simple: if you want to interact with the larger town community, ask for permission first!

Public Relations is key

It doesn’t matter how awesome your constellation tours are, or how big your telescope. If people don’t know what you’re doing, where you’re doing it, or when, then they aren’t going to show up. You’ve got to advertise your club! 

There are four basic ingredients in a successful public relations strategy:

Branding. Come up with a memorable name for your club. If you’re going to use the format “The Astronomy Club of The University of So-and-So” then you might consider referring to yourself as the “AstroClub” or the “AstroSoc”, whichever is most suitable. A logo is also vital for good branding. 

Social media. Regardless of whether you dislike social media, most people rely on it for their daily information! Start a Facebook page, Twitter account, or Instagram feed. Share your own events and photos, as well as current events in astronomy, science, and space exploration. Post about weather cancellations and when you’re shutting down! A website may also be useful for archival photos, observing schedules, etc.

Posters. Know someone who took that graphic design course in Sophmore year? Ask them to help you create a poster to advertise your events. If you have a coordinated (bi-)weekly event, then this is the place to advertise it in big letters!

Gear. There are all sorts of companies that specialize in branding hoodies, jackets, and the like. Get yourself kitted out in a nice warm “AstroClub” jacket for those cold nights, and also for walking around campus! Plus, it helps guests recognize who is in charge. Or, if possible, open up shop and take orders from your regular attendees! 

Credit: AstroSoc St Andrews

Keep in mind that it is extremely tiresome to advertise a new event each week. That means printing expenses, plastering up new posters, and running around campus. If instead, you can coordinate a weekly or bi-weekly schedule, then one set of posters can last a whole semester (since you might have to reschedule times to daylight savings…). And it’s more than that. If on average one person actually reads your poster once a semester, they are much more likely to show up if they know they can choose when to attend and know that weather permitting, you’ll be open so they can get their astronomy fix!

Going big

Perhaps you’re a part of an already established as an astronomical club, or perhaps you’re particularly ambitious at starting a new one. Here are some tips to really make your club stand out.

Your lecturers and professors really love what they do. If you have access to an indoor seated venue, then it may be possible to substitute or complement a stargazing evening with a short talk from a willing faculty member (whom, crucially, you believe can communicate science well). Or perhaps recruit a graduate student or even a senior undergraduate. Communication is key here, and you must make it crystal clear to them what their audience should be expected to know, especially if they will be talking about their own research. Talks are especially great to showcase recent events in astronomy and space exploration. 

Aurora Borealis from Iceland. Credit: Alex Dutoy

Spring break can be a great time to go on a trip. For folks in more northerly regions, a trip to dark skies where aurora may be visible can leave memories for a lifetime. Otherwise, visits to dark sky parks, public observatories, and planetariums can be a lot of fun too, and a lot less hassle. You could also pass the time learning and/or teaching astrophotography, engaging and/or leading citizen science events, or adding new targets to your observing bucket list.

Lastly, there are a number of charitable organizations who work to make astronomy accessible throughout the world, and to preserve the beauty of our dark skies in light of (literally) bright LED street lamps and reflective space debris. Three prominent groups are Astronomers Without Borders, The International Dark Sky Association, and The Planetary Society. A fundraiser or other charitable event in support of these (and many other) organizations can not only help raise the profile of your club, but also make long-lasting connections. But first, make sure you have permission from your university or student association to engage in charitable campaigns.

It works!

I was involved in my university astronomical society AstroSoc during my five-year MPhys undergraduate degree at the University of St Andrews in the UK. I’ve worked all aspects of the society, from Freshman Representative to Observing Director to President. We shifted the society from an academic focus to an outward-facing educational team to promote science and astronomy on campus. We were incredibly lucky to have access to an observatory building from which we gave rooftop star-tours, telescopic observing, and lectures each week. It took two years of constant effort, but on opening night in 2016 we had over 200 students from both the humanities and sciences in attendance. Then in 2017 we raised over $600 for Astronomers Without Borders from a benefit dinner and dance. Last year in 2019 we were shortlisted for Best Academic Society in the UK.

It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to provide this wonderful experience to my university community, and it is my hope that with these tips you can too. 

About John Weaver

I am a second year PhD student at the Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen, where I study the formation and evolution of galaxies across cosmic time with incredibly deep observations in the optical and infrared. I got my start at a little planetarium, and I've been doing lots of public outreach and citizen science ever since.

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