Long-term activities in astronomy and space
The first meeting of professionals running space and astronomy clubs in Switzerland took place on August 14, 2023, at Raumschiff – the Maker Space for Astronomy in Dübendorf.
Participants from four institutions offering long-term activities (Kinderlab Landquart, Sternwarte Schaffhausen, L’Ideatorio Lugano and Raumschiff) learned about each other’s approaches, shared experiences and resources, developed a list of criteria for sustainably running a space or astronomy club in Switzerland and discussed funding scenarios.
The potential of long-term activities
New developments in space and astronomy take place at a great speed. There are still many unanswered questions that attract public interest. For schools it is difficult to keep up with the speed of developments. Should a primary school teacher choose to cover space at all, he/she often does so at a superficial level due to his/her own educational background and the lack of preparation time. In contrast, extra-scholar organisations have the advantage to offer long-term activities in a specialized field with a professional approach and based on years of experiences. They incorporate cutting edge expert knowledge and take up new developments in extremely flexible ways. They can work towards deeper understanding by relating new findings to basic concepts and vice versa and by responding to the personal interests of the participants.
People choose to engage in extra scholar programmes for reasons of personal fascination with the field. They have the opportunity to establish an informed background for future career decisions. This is not only true for the young generation but also for their parents. It also applies to other adults, should they have access to an adult programme. With teenagers and young adults, it is more difficult. They are often busy with other aspects of their lives. Addressing children at a young age, when they are enthusiastic about nearly everything, and offering opportunities for further activities, proves more fruitful. Early engagement generates a sound basis for future involvement during other phases of life, even if not seamless.
Still, space and astronomy clubs are not simply career training centres for the next generation workforce. They are also places for nurturing interests in the lives of many people without career ambitions in these fields. By the permanent presence of the clubs, both as physical spaces in a particular location and as event venues regularly appearing in the media, they are capable of raising awareness about the field, including its values, far beyond the actual participants in the clubs. This effect can be further enhanced by occasional club events targeting larger audiences.
Space and astronomy involve all aspects of STEAM: Science (including physics, chemistry, biology), Technology (including IT), Engineering (including machine learning and AI), all manifestations of the Arts, and Mathematics. It is a perfect gateway to STEAM topics.
Space and astronomy clubs in Switzerland
Long-term engagement in space and astronomy is a rather new concept. There are only few organizations in Switzerland offering such programmes. (Should the reader know of any not mentioned here, please let us know!) They emerged independently in different parts of Switzerland out of a perceived need for new approaches to extra-scholar astronomy education.
Astronomy is part of an encompassing STEAM programme at the Kinderlab Landquart. The founder and leader of the lab is an astronomy enthusiast herself and well connected to the local and national astronomy community. The lab offers an AstroKids group for 4th to 8th grade. At the same time, astronomy and space is a returning feature in all other STEAM classes: the ForscherNanos, the ForscherMinis, the ForscherKids, the ForscherGirls, the KreativeKids and may occasionally even appear in the new Lego Team. Except for the holidays, these groups run throughout the year and allow children of all ages to engage in STEAM over as many years as they wish.
Besides numerous tours for schools and the public, Sternwarte Schaffhausen runs a rich children and youth programme making use of the resources at the observatory and the planetarium. Sternenjäger is for 7-9 years old, Sky Explorer for 10-12 years old and the new group Sky Captain for 13-16 years old. Children can participate in the programme during several years. The plan is to involve the oldest ones both in the handling of the big and expensive telescopes of the observatory and to teach them how to run their own planetarium shows for their families and friends.
Raumschiff – the Maker Space for Astronomy has tested various formats for engaging participants over a longer period of time, including those who have little access to STEAM programmes. The most successful one so far is a system featuring the Planet-Club for 2-4 grade, the Galaxy-Club for 5-8 grade and the Cosmos-Club for adults. The clubs run during the dark season from September through March. Participation over several years is welcome. Raumschiff is connected to the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz and contributes to the public engagement programme of their space related research projects.
The situation at L’Ideatorio Lugano is a bit different, as this is a fully fledged science centre focusing on interactive exhibitions. However, astronomy is a permanent feature of its programme. The centre features both a small permanently installed planetarium and a mobile one. It offers short workshop series in various astronomy-related topics for different target groups from children to adults, including teachers. An additional centre is in planning in Airolo, focusing on students. L’Ideatorio pursues a sophisticated approach to a human centred, culturally embedded astronomy education.
By the permanent presence of the clubs, both as physical spaces in a particular location and as event venues regularly mentioned in the media, space and astronomy clubs are capable of raising awareness about the field, including its values, far beyond the actual participants of the clubs. Space and astronomy become permanent topics of interest, including for the local press. This effect is further enhanced by occasional club events such as space festivals addressing larger audiences.
Although the described organizations are small and, with the exception of L’Ideatorio, operate with very limited job percentages, their geographical reach is considerable. Participants at the programmes consist both of interested locals and of enthusiasts who, in the absence of a closer opportunity, are willing to travel long distances to join such a programme.
Criteria for successfully running a space or astronomy club
There is no ‘one fits all’ formula for setting up and running a space or astronomy club. Local contexts and resources need to be considered. While some of the criteria described below are core to the success of a club, others are part of the diversity of solutions to create the best possible club.
Location, space and infrastructure
- Permanent premises, big and flexible enough for different activities
- Technical infrastructure, equipment and enough storage space for workshop materials and experiments
- Located within easy reach by public transportation, including for older children to arrive on their own
Depending on individual concepts
- Local network of experts within reach
- Dark sky within reach
- Shop window for public display
- Location close to where potential participants with limited access to STEAM programmes live
Management and staff
Although a professional approach to running such a club is core, there are currently no training opportunities in extra scholar astronomy and space education. People working in this field come from different professional backgrounds, sharing their enthusiasm for the field and a strong pedagogical flair. Some key criteria to running a club are:
- Management and staff positions are paid.
- The involvement of volunteers and participant junior staff is welcome, but not to replace paid positions.
- There is an overall professional pedagogical approach.
- The staff has a sound general expertise in the subject fields, knowledge where to find further resources and the willingness to learn fast.
- The staff has a passion for sharing. The joy of the inner child is activated.
- The staff perceives and appreciates participants‘ particular interests, talents and needs.
- The staff has sound technical competences.
- Strong organizational skills are needed to organize the programme and manage participants.
- Plenty of personal initiative and creativity is needed.
Network and learning ecology
No single organization can provide a full set of long-term engagement opportunities on its own. Just like for learning music or practising sport, club activities are embedded in a larger field of cultural practices related to astronomy and space. Good collaboration with the local learning ecology system is key to enhancing club programmes and helping participants to pursue their own pathways to astronomy and space.
Resources for organizing an attractive programme
- Universities, labs and local companies for access to experts
- Access to, and support from, a technical workshop
- A physical sharing system for educational material
- An online platform for activities
- Access to professional development for staff
Resources for expanding participants experiences beyond the club
- Observation opportunities close by
- A planetarium close by
- Exhibitions with astro/space content within reach
- Science festivals to visit or participate in
- Infotainment and family fun offers within reach
- Professional labs to visit
- Special courses, e.g. astrophotography
- Summer camps
- National and international space competitions
- An astronomy playground for the youngest ones
Solutions for sustainable funding of long-term programmes in space and astronomy
Securing funding is a big challenge for small organizations. Writing comprehensive proposals to countless funding agencies exceeds their personnel resources by far. The fact that funding agencies only support short term projects rather than long-term efforts complicates the situation even more. With funding schemes based on one-time contributions rather than recurring payments, securing the finances for a sustainable programme becomes a Marathon run.
The table below shows a list of funding options compiled by the participants of this meeting. Very few are within reach of small extra scholar educational initiatives.
|SNF/Federal government (Agora)
|Larger contributions possible
– Exclusively for scientists
– Only project based (limited time)
|Cantons (lottery funds)
|– Only one-time projects
|Local support beyond finances
|– Big effort for small amounts if at all
– Few such organizations in space/astro
– Pursue their own projects, no public funding scheme
|Outreach budget within EU-research projects
|Remuneration of person months according to workplan
– Content limited to particular research project
– No infrastructure costs covered
– Only for universities or companies
– Currently no more EU-projects
– Proposal needs to perfectly fit foundation objectives
– Only project based
– Not suitable for long-term projects
– Small contributions, project based, conditional
|Membership fees associations
|May cover part of the room costs
– Takes an association and all the effort for running it
– Not enough
|Cover course materials and excursions
|– Not enough to cover personnel cost, room and infrastructure
With their minimal job percentages club leaders don’t have the resources to do the fundraising themselves. A basic yet sustainable funding solution is needed for long-term programmes to survive, to focus on quality education and to deliver the impact they are capable of.
Participants at the meeting discussed how much long-term engagement would be possible with CHF 20’000 per year and per institution. They agreed that this amount would roughly cover for a 20% position. Different scenarios were discussed. The conclusion was that, although this amount would not allow for a fully fledged long-term space and astronomy club, it could guarantee for 2-4 long-term groups to start with, depending on the particular club concept. The prerequisite for this is that the room and the infrastructure is covered by other means, suggesting that a club ideally is hosted by an existing institution.
A more encompassing program for a broader age range could be offered as soon as additional funding was secured. For additions to the programme such as for example excursions, project-based funding could be a possibility, as it wouldn’t jeopardize the entire long-term plan. CHF 20’000 per club is a small investment resulting in a big impact. This is possible only thanks to the above-average commitment of the people engaged in astronomy and space education outside school.
A nationwide network
A network of space and astronomy clubs in all parts of Switzerland, including those underserved by the main academic institutions’ outreach efforts, is not only able to deliver high quality long-term activities for many interested children and adults throughout Switzerland but also to raise awareness about the topics far beyond the active participants. Well connected with both professional actors from the academies and the industry and highly engaged lay actors from astronomy associations and observatories, the network of space and astronomy clubs will have a solid impact in a growing overall Swiss STEAM learning landscape.