Dr. Angela Speck, professor and director of astronomy at the University of Missouri, decided to be an astronaut when she was just five years old. The successes of space exploration seen on TV was a huge influence, as the “Apollo effect” was in full force. She quickly learned that a future in science was the way to accomplish that goal, and her academic career proceeded in that direction.
Though she never actually became an astronaut, Dr. Speck’s head is still among the stars, as she has devoted to studying the very stardust that makes up all things. Now, she is equally devoted to bringing her research and the wonders of astronomy to communities beyond the university. Just as publicized space exploration caught her attention as a child, her science outreach efforts may inspire the next generation of scientists.
Astronomy has built in public outreach potential, as the sky surrounds us and has fascinated star gazers for millennia. The public is fascinated by anything related to space, like the planetary categorization of Pluto, astrology, and the many objects in the night sky. In fact, the field of astronomy has been reaching out to the public for quite some time. Galileo wrote in Italian instead of Latin to appeal to the public.
Dr. Speck has harnessed the curiosity that we have for the sky, and sees opportunities for science outreach everywhere. For example, an eclipse is an accessible part of astronomy, as it is able to be seen without specialized equipment, similar to the tangible nature of the moon. Even a simple child’s telescope can open up a whole new world of discovery. She views astronomy as a “gateway science,” as it enables people to begin exploring science in a way that other scientific fields cannot.
During the months leading up to the August 2017 eclipse, Dr. Speck took part in outreach opportunities all over the state of Missouri and beyond. If there was an outreach event concerning the eclipse anywhere in the Missouri, you could bet that Dr. Speck would be there. In addition to talking with school groups and scout troops, she gave talks to adults, including the local Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and even the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. These new avenues provided new audiences, and required Dr. Speck to think differently about how to present the information with each new opportunity. In conjunction with many presentations on the topic, Dr. Speck also wanted to reach underrepresented groups leading up to the eclipse. Using grant funds from NSF, she was able to re-grant funds to groups across the country that were working to engage with their local communities to get people excited about the eclipse.
For her next outreach endeavor, Dr. Speck wants to focus on school-age children and the choices they make regarding their math and sciences courses. In the Columbia Public School system, students are required to choose a math track at the end of their sixth grade year. As this is exactly the time when many students, especially women and minorities, tend to stop showing interest in science, Dr. Speck wants to focus on how and why this age group of students makes their math and science choices.
While some choices may be based on peer pressure, Dr. Speck believes that these students need to be engaged at this level and introduced to science. By choosing a high track, students are exposed to calculus before they reach high school, which is not presented in the lowest track. Thus, a choice made at the middle school level, may deter one’s interest or affect one’s ability to pursue a career in science once they reach college. For Dr. Speck, this is the perfect opportunity to reach students before their choice regarding their math track is made. She also wants to show these students that you don’t have to “look like a scientist” to become a scientist. This project could have an impact on the pipeline to science for underrepresented groups.
Dr. Speck also uses her community here at MU to facilitate outreach opportunities. The Haunted Observatory event, now in its fifth year, occurs around Halloween in the Physics Building and roof-top observatory. For one night each year, the observatory is “haunted” by the ghosts of astronomers past who tell their stories, inform guests of the history of astronomy, and give the public a taste of the field.
Much of Dr. Speck’s outreach is focused on school-age students, as they tend to a receptive population. However, she brings her research and the field of astronomy to just about every population. The goal may be different for adults, as she is probably not helping them choose a career as a scientist, but many have a keen interest in the topic of astronomy as life-long learners.
For Dr. Speck, the most satisfying outreach experiences are the ones that capture the attention of a participant who was not originally interested in the subject, but gets excited when they didn’t expect it. She enjoys reaching out to those new audiences. After all, to get people to listen, sometimes you have to sneak up on them.