A Model Outreach Event

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SPS Chapters on Outreach

A Model Outreach Event


Stephen Bardowell, Former SPS Chapter President, Tarleton State University


Students brave the cold to learn about physics and astronomy during Tarleton’s outreach event. Photos courtesy of Tarleton University’s SPS chapter.

Tarleton State University is home to an optical research observatory that can be remotely operated from anywhere in the world. Despite the observatory’s high quality, few locals know it exists. Our SPS chapter decided to host a space-themed outreach event for local students to raise awareness of the observatory. 

The event kicked off bright and early on a fall morning in 2022. Volunteers arrived at the observatory at 8 a.m. to set up activities and prepare for the first group of students. By the time buses full of 7th to 12th graders arrived, we had roaring heaters and volunteers eager to guide small groups through five stations located inside and outside of the observatory—a wild round-robin of physics fun!

Small groups of students rotated through each station, but with the brisk winter air, they seemed to enjoy the heaters the most! The students huddled close to the warmth while waiting for their turn to build structures from toothpicks and marshmallows and walk through Tarleton’s 32-inch Ritchey-Chretien research telescope.


Tarleton’s SPS chapter relaxes in the lounge.

By mid-morning, temperatures had risen enough that focus strayed from the heaters to the black hole simulators, where students enjoyed competing to see who could achieve the largest gravity assist. Using a neodymium magnet attached to the underside of a canvas painted to look like space, students rolled ball bearings (“spaceships”) along the surface to discover the location of a hidden “black hole.” Then, by carefully matching their incoming velocity to the bearing mass, students could slingshot their spaceship around the event horizon for a massive speed boost.

In the afternoon we hosted a second group, this time of 4th to 6th graders. These students particularly enjoyed firing “rockets” toward a target using nested straws attached to a balloon. By controlling the pressure in the balloon and creating wings and airfoils with tape, participants competed to see who could hit the targets from farthest away.

Our solar telescope received lots of attention from the afternoon group when the sun put on a display, showing a sudden uptick in prominences, stellar snakes, and even a solar flare. Back at the black hole station, one student got so good that he managed to slingshot his bearing around the black hole for two whole rotations before it rocketed off the canvas and got lost in the grass!

This event generated a lot of enthusiasm among the students and nearby schools, and showed off the observatory to many local students. We had so much positive feedback that we’ve decided to offer slots for future events through a lottery system. We also plan to make a few tweaks. Specifically, we plan to reduce the time students spend at each station so we can have a third group of students cycle through, and we’d also like to add a few more stations. With these changes, we should be able to accommodate even more students, introducing them to our observatory and having fun with physics and astronomy.

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The SPS summer internship program offers 10-week, paid positions for undergraduate physics and astronomy students in science research, education, outreach, and policy. Interns are placed with organizations in the greater Washington, DC, area. Applications are due January 15 each year. Learn more at spsnational.org/programs/internships

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SPS Chapters on Outreach