Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Susan Koch: Fundraising underway for much-needed renovations for UIS Observatory

The following is an excerpt from a column by University of Illinois Springfield Chancellor Susan Koch. This column appeared in The State Journal-Register on September 7, 2019. 

Since the University of Illinois Springfield was created nearly 50 years ago, engagement with the community has been central to its mission. That commitment continues to provide countless ways for area residents from preschoolers to seniors to learn, grow and enjoy by engaging in a variety of events and activities across the university calendar.

One of the most popular outreach activities of the University today is also one of the oldest. Star Parties, where visitors are invited to the UIS Observatory to view celestial objects and learn about science and astronomy, were started in 1977 by Professor Charlie Schweighauser, one of the early members of the then-Sangamon State University faculty.

“Everyone is intrigued by the sun, moon, planets and stars,” said Schweighauser (now retired), “and I saw astronomy as a gateway for making good science available to the public.”

The UIS Astronomy program possesses some of the finest equipment in the state, including a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and four smaller telescopes located on the observation deck atop Brookens Library.

Since the late 1970s, thousands of people of all ages have come to the UIS Observatory for Star Parties, as well as for special astronomical events like lunar and solar eclipses and comets.

At a typical Star Party, visitors learn about galaxies as well as star and constellation identification.

Staff and trained volunteers then assist guests in using the telescopes — enabling stargazers to observe objects of interest in the night sky.

It’s not unusual for the program to host 50 to 100 participants on a clear night.

There are even Star Parties for people with disabilities that feature the first telescope ever designed for wheelchair access.

Professor John Martin, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, has provided leadership for the Astronomy program since 2006.

“Starting my freshman year at UVA,” Martin said, “I would hang out during public viewings at the UVA Observatory — taking measurements and having fun. They eventually asked me to help out, and I worked there for four years. That was my Friday nights!”

After more than 40 years of Star Parties, fundraising is now underway for much-needed renovations of the UIS Observatory, including redesign and replacement of the original deck with composite material, improved accessibility for people of all abilities and re-imagining the telescope enclosure for more efficient use.

“It has been a joy helping kids look through our telescopes week after week, always with a fresh set of questions,” Martin said. “With these much-needed renovations, we’ll be able to satisfy the curiosity of stargazers young and old for the next 40 years and beyond.”

Read the entire column online.