Ferris Wheel in Liseberg, Sweden

Ever play science roulette? Me neither. In Gothenburg, Sweden, festival organizers had the brilliant idea to put a scientist on each of the cars of a ferris wheel. When you got on, you rode with a scientist and learned a little bit about what s/he does. You didn’t know which scientist was going to be in which car, hence: roulette.

Know anyone with a nerdy tattoo? I do. (Comes with the territory when you’re in the biz.) Last year, the Philadelphia Science Festival hosted Science Ink featuring Carl Zimmer and a body artist to talk about scientists with science-y tattoos as well as the use of tattoos in modern medicine.

Each year, the Bay Area Science Festival takes over an aircraft carrier in San Francisco Bay to host a Nerd Nite at Sea complete with food, drink and science demonstrations. Nerd. Nite. At. Sea. How fun is that? (Even if they do spell “night” wrong.)

I’m bringing these funky events to your attention as a challenge to the good people of North Carolina. The NC Science Festival is putting out the call for event submissions for our 2014 Festival. The dates are March 28 – April 13, 2014. Each year, we’ve been thrilled at all of the wonderful events our partners have come up with. This year, we’d like to see more. We’d like to engage new audiences. I’m convinced that we’re the best science festival in all the land. But we still want (need!) to be better. So I’m looking at all of you, you Ignites and SparkCons, you TEDx organizers and 5K fun run fundraisers. We want you! The Festival is the perfect time to captivate crowds and get people talking your language.

A science of beer event featuring beers with science-style names (Rocket Science with Rocket Scientists serving Rocket Science IPA, anyone?).

A Reverse Science Fair where scientists have to explain their research to kids?

A robot zoo?

A video game tournament with looks behind the scenes at computer programming?

How about an app off? Come pitch your new app in front of the adoring masses and get voted as the best.

So many ideas I start to forget what I’m typing about. What I do know is that we would love for you to get involved. We’re the first and one of the few statewide science festivals. There’s room for everybody.

For details on hosting official NC Science Festival events, please go here.

Keep those ideas coming. And by all means, contact me anytime with suggestions. The wackier, the better.

Jonathan Frederick directs the North Carolina Science Festival, an initiative of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

bar graph of evaluation data

Credit: Dr. Karen Peterman, Karen Peterman Consulting Company

Thanks to the support and foresight of the NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, we’re fortunate to be able to work with Dr. Karen Peterman, a leading expert on science festival evaluation. She has collected and analyzed data for our 2012 and 2013 science festivals. (Considering the statewide nature of what we do, this is no minor chore.)

On September 12, 2013, Dr. Peterman presented to the NC Science Festival Board of Advisors. We thought we’d share some of our favorite findings from that report.

1.  NCSCIFEST events have increased both in quantity and in quality – There’s more to do each year AND the activities people get to do get better each year.

2. Our Elementary School Science Night program is so good, we don’t need to evaluate it anymore, anytime soon. It’s true. That’s what Dr. Peterman told us. For context:  Each year, we provide kits to NC elementary schools to throw science parties. These kits are full of carefully selected and refined hands-on activities. They’ve been so well received and the evaluation numbers are so solid, we’re going to focus on other things to evaluate in coming years.

FYI:  this year our goal is to provide 110 Science Night Kits to elementary schools across the state.

3.  The more hands-on and the more experts, the better. People like science events. If you want people to LOVE science events, you add two things:  hands-on activities and include a scientist. That’s why we’re always encouraging scientists to get involved in all of our events. Our data clearly shows how much value experts add to the experiences!

(IMPORTANT SIDE-NOTE: Just as the word “Science” in NC Science Festival is meant to be a blanket term referring to STEM, we use “scientist” to refer to all STEM experts, including engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and medical professionals.)

4.  When people come to NCSCIFEST events, they do more science “stuff” afterward. They talk about it with others. They look for more information. They do more activities related to the Festival event they attended. This is exciting because 1. I’m a nerd; and 2. because we really want to be able to point to longer-term, positive outcomes of our annual celebration.

5.  Festival attendees were more racially and ethnically diverse in 2013 as compared to 2012. We still have a ways to go to meet our goals for participation, but we’re on the right track. We are committed to engaging increasingly diverse audiences and look forward to supporting events that do the same.

6. The Festival provides NEW OPPORTUNITIES for our partners. 62% of our hosts reported that they learned new public communication strategies as a result of Festival participation. 80% reported an increase in opportunities to communicate with the public. 68% gained greater confidence. 47% reported new partnerships with community groups. 44% reported new professional collaborations. 37% reported follow up visits or enrollment from Festival attendees. 13% reported new funding opportunities.

The Festival could not/would not exist without our hundreds of event partners across the state, so having these types of outcomes are great. They demonstrate the types of win-wins we’re going for when we invite new partners to get involved.

7.  The Festival is FUN. Our events are teaching about STEM careers. We’re increasing the awareness of how STEM is connected to our daily lives. We’re teaching something new about STEM. But most of all:  we’re making STEM learning fun, year in and year out. That’s probably my favorite fact.

Our long term goal is to have 1 million NC residents participating each year in Festival activities. To learn more about the 2012 and 2013 NC Science Festivals, you can review our final reports here.

The 2014 NC Science Festival will be March 28 – April 13, 2014. Stay tuned — or better yet — sign up for our e-Newsletter here: www.ncsciencefestival.org.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Peterman’s report, you can listen to a slidecast of it here. For more about Peterman Consulting, please go here.

Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival.

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

A giant grizzly bear chases seven little girls. In desperation, the girls scramble onto a low rock, but they know the bear will easily reach them there.

As the bear rears up on its hind legs, one girl prays to the spirit of the rock: “Rock, take pity on us! Rock, save us!”

The rock hears them. And it begins to grow.

The bear just misses the girls as it slashes out at them. Instead, its claws make deep scratches into the side of the rock.

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

As the girls keep praying and the rock keeps growing and lifting them, the bear jumps higher and higher, creating more deep grooves in the rock. The seven girls finally escape into the sky and become stars.

That’s a Kiowa version of how the Pleiades star cluster – also known as the “Seven Sisters” – came to be. You can see these stars, which look like they’re huddling together for safety, during most of the night this time of year.

The rock really exists, too, stretching more than 800 feet into the sky. It’s in Wyoming where it is known by various names, including Devils Tower. Blog readers of a certain generation may recognize this rock from the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

To hear the full story about the scary bear, along with a few other star stories appropriate for the Halloween season, please join us for Scare-olina Skies:

  • Two evening shows are aimed at adult audiences (older teens welcome): Saturday, Oct. 26, and Wednesday, Oct. 30, both at 8 p.m.
  • Families with younger children should choose one of the afternoon shows: Saturday, Oct. 26, at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 27, at 3:30 p.m.

A story about the Pleiades and Devils Tower will be told each time, but the Arikara version in the adult program will unfold quite differently from the Kiowa version.

Medusa also makes an appearance at Scare-olina Skies.

The Moon on Friday morning, Sept. 27, 2013

What the Moon will look like at 9 a.m. EST Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 – but picture a blue sky as the background. (Credit: “Dial-A-Moon”; NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

If you have not seen the Moon in the daytime lately, the next couple of mornings provide a good opportunity.

At its current phase — last quarter — the Moon rises roughly around midnight and sets around noon. Tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 27, 2013), the Moon reaches its highest point in the sky in the south around 7:30 a.m. After that, the Moon slides westward, finally setting around 2:30 p.m. It’s worth looking Saturday, too (add about 45 minutes to those times).

So you might step outside to look for the Moon after you wake up tomorrow, or during your morning commute (unless you’re the driver!), or during lunchtime. The Moon will appear about half lit, on the side facing the Sun.

But don’t wait too many more days to look for the daytime Moon. Although the Moon rises and sets later each day, providing more daytime hours to potentially see it, it also appears less and less lit each day from Earth’s point of view as the Moon’s phase heads from last quarter to waning crescent. On October 4, 2013, it’ll be New Moon – when it’s up all day (and only in the day). But it’s only the side facing away from Earth that’s lit. So you won’t see it.

Want to learn more about the Moon? Mark your calendar for International Observe the Moon Night, on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. That evening, from 7 to 9 p.m. (weather permitting), Morehead will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. The Moon will be just past first quarter on October 12 and visible in the afternoon and evening sky.

In addition to telescopes and binoculars, the session will feature a few Moon-related demos as well as Moon stories shared by storytellers from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. This event is free. Join us!

Weather permitting, you have another skywatching opportunity: this Friday (9/27/13) from 8-10 p.m. at Little River Regional Park. No Moon but plenty else to see through the telescopes.

Look closely at this Mercury crater – it is smiling at you! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

For early birds, the next week or so is a good time to try to spot Mercury low in the eastern dawn twilight. Look about 40-60 minutes before sunrise. Mercury will appear close to reddish Mars and bright Jupiter.

If observing Mercury has you fantasizing about taking a trip there, you might consider what you should pack. Four possible items:

1)      A really good spacesuit. The high temperature on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2)      Long underwear. Although you would be absolutely scorched on the side of Mercury facing the Sun, Mercury doesn’t have a thick atmosphere to retain that heat. So the temperature on the nighttime side can drop to way, way below freezing.

3)      Ice skates. The MESSENGER mission has found compelling evidence that there is abundant water ice in permanently shadowed craters at Mercury’s poles.

4)      Birthday candles. If you take a vacation that’s long enough, you’ll celebrate a birthday on Mercury. This speedy planet completes a trip around the Sun much faster than Earth does. One year on Mercury is the equivalent of only 88 days on Earth.

You can learn more about Mercury at NASA’s Solar System Exploration site.

Since you can’t actually vacation on Mercury, you’ll have to settle for seeing the planet from Earth.

07 Mar 2013
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Does Orion look like this to you? You must be looking from a dark site, such as Ocracoke Island, NC. Or there is a massive power outage.

How dark is your sky? The constellations will tell you. The more stars you can see in a given constellation, such as Orion or Leo, the darker your sky.

By going outside at least one hour after sunset and making simple observations about the stars you can see, you can participate in a worldwide citizen-science project to map light pollution around the globe.

Everything you need to know can be found at the GLOBE at Night website. The site has activity packets designed for families and teachers.

This is how Orion looked tonight from outside Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC, where many outdoor lights are unshielded, washing out the fainter stars—and failing to light the ground effectively and efficiently.

Through March 12, you can use Orion to collect your data. For later campaigns — March 31-April 9 and April 29-May 8 — use Leo instead. (If you stumbled across this blog from the southern hemisphere, you can use Crux, the Southern Cross.)

Submit your data online with GLOBE at Night’s web app. Your data helps create an interactive map of observations worldwide. Then you can compare your results with others’ reports.

Want to learn more about dark skies? Join us for “Our Vanishing Night” at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center on Saturday, March 9, 2013, from 3:30-4:15 p.m.

Orion has lost his belt and is unrecognizable. Perhaps you are in Manhattan. (Orion images from globeatnight.org)

You’ll learn how to identify the stars of Orion, Leo, and other constellations; hear a cultural star story or two; see a light shielding demo that will amaze you; and experience the planetarium sky at varying levels of light pollution, including a pristine dark sky lit only by thousands of stars and the Milky Way.

Amy Sayle was the 6,384th Citizen Scientist to submit data to GLOBE at Night.

I just got the go-ahead to share a secret I’ve been dying to
tell for quite a while: Morehead Planetarium and Science Center has just started production of a fulldome planetarium show based on the popular
children’s book “Grossology and You!”

Many children and teachers are already familiar with the
“Grossology” book series
–- I know I used these books in my classroom. The concept is brilliant. The books’ author, Sylvia Branzei-Velasquez, a teacher
herself, takes all the gross stuff that kids just love — snot, blood, poop and
more –- and turns them into teachable moments. For example, scrapes and scabs become an opportunity to teach about how the body fights infection. Snot becomes an opportunity to introduce the vital role of mucus in our lungs and throughout our bodies. Jack Keely’s fun illustrations keep it all from getting too gross for anyone.

We’ve been wanting to do a human body and health planetarium show for
quite a while, and this project just seemed like the right opportunity at the
right time. With the change in our planetarium technology to fulldome digital,
the opportunity to branch out beyond astronomy and space science is now
possible. In fact, with fulldome technology we can use the dome to immerse
people in any environment that has some space to it.

Expect that the new show will involve some travel inside human body organs. This gives new meaning to “learning from the inside out!”

This project is made possible through generous support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) SEPA (Science Education
Partnership Award) program
. NIH has long been a supporter of innovative science education programs.

We will be working with Sylvia, Jack and several others to produce this show. UNC researchers Dr. Rich Superfine, Dr. Kay Lund, Dr. Alisa Wolberg, Dr. Ric Boucher and Dr. Sam Lai will provide scientific oversight. Educators from North Carolina and beyond will help ensure that the show and curriculum
materials we develop will really appeal to students and align to national
curriculum standards. And, of course, our award-winning production department
will bring it all together to create a one-of-a-kind educational experience!

Several of the other educational shows we’ve produced,
including Earth, Moon and Sun, Magic Tree House Space Mission and Solar System
Odyssey
, have been leased by planetariums throughout the US and around the
world. Grossology and You is sure to be another favorite. We look forward to
sharing it with you in early 2014.

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning.

06 Feb 2013
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Composite image of Mercury taken by the MESSENGER mission (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Want to catch a glimpse of a planet few people have knowingly seen? For viewers at mid-northern latitudes, next week offers 2013’s best evening apparition of Mercury. About 45 minutes after sunset, try looking for Mercury as a pinpoint of light low in the west, above the spot where the Sun set.

It will be easier to see Mercury starting around Feb. 9, 2013, but if skies are clear where you live it’s definitely worth trying Feb. 7 and 8, when Mercury meets up with Mars in evening twilight. Look low in the west about a half hour after sunset, and use binoculars to help you spot dimmer Mars. Both those evenings the two planets are well within one degree of each other—less than the width of your pinky finger when held at arm’s length.

Why is Mercury usually a difficult planet to observe? As the innermost planet to the Sun, Mercury never appears to stray far from the Sun in our sky. So it can become visible only low in the west just after sunset, or low in the east just before sunrise.

To join the club of people who have knowingly seen Mercury, please join Morehead for a skywatching session the evening of Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Weather permitting, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. we’ll be at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. This site provides an excellent view of the western horizon over the lake. To see Mercury before it sets, arrive near the beginning of the session.

If you miss Mercury in the evening sky this month, try again in late May through mid-June.

Be sure to look up Monday night (Jan. 21, 2013) to catch a close encounter of the Moon with Jupiter.

The view should be spectacular anytime that Monday evening, but to view these two objects at their closest, go out around 11:30 p.m. The waxing gibbous Moon and brilliantly shining Jupiter will be less than 1 degree apart. That’s less than the width of your pinky finger when you hold it all the way out, at arm’s length.

Although the Moon and Jupiter might seem very close that night, in reality they are very far away from each other. The Moon’s distance averages about 240,000 miles from Earth, whereas Jupiter lies roughly 500 million miles away.

To put it another way, the Moon is just over 1 light-second away (since light coming from the distance of the Moon takes just over one second to reach our eyes), but Jupiter’s distance is roughly 45 light-minutes.

And those stars that currently appear near Jupiter? The bright orange-ish one, Aldebaran, is 65 light-years away, which means you see the star as it looked when the light left it 65 years ago, shortly after the end of World War II.

Also “near” Jupiter is the Pleiades star cluster (the “Seven Sisters”). But really those stars are more than 400 light-years away.

Getting back closer to home:  If seeing the Moon inspires you to want to learn more about it or hear Moon stories from around the world, please join us under the planetarium dome for “Star Families: Moon Myths” on Saturday, Jan. 26, from 3:30-4:15 p.m.

If you miss this conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon, try again March 17, 2013, when they have another fairly close encounter.

Geminid meteors appear to originate from a point near the head of Castor, one of the Gemini twins (he’s the twin on the right).

One of the best meteor showers of the year—the Geminid meteor shower—peaks tonight (Thursday 12/13/12).

Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they aren’t stars. The streaks of light are created when bits of cosmic debris are vaporized in Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the Geminids, the debris has been left by a small asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. Every year around this time, Earth’s orbit takes us through this stream of particles.

When to look for the Geminid meteors:

  • It’s worth looking any time after about 9 p.m. tonight (Thursday 12/13/12) until dawn (Friday 12/14/12).
  • If you are determined to see the most meteors, you may wish to be out around 1 or 2 a.m., when you may see an average of more than one per minute from a dark site.

Where to go:

  • Morehead is hosting a public skywatching session tonight at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. We’ll be there from 8 to 10 p.m. Find directions and FAQs on our website.
  • If you can’t join us at Jordan Lake, find a dark site, away from city lights and any unshielded lights. (Urban skywatchers will miss all but the brightest meteors.) You’ll also want an open view of the sky, and of course, a reasonably clear sky (the forecast looks good for all of North Carolina).

What to bring:

  • Really, really, really warm clothes. Think long underwear. Think layers. Think hats and gloves. Anyone used to being outside on cold nights for only the few seconds it takes to get between house and car may be surprised to discover how incredibly cold a night like this can start to feel when you’re out for a while not moving around much. Dress more warmly than you think you need to and it’ll probably work out just right.
  • A sleeping bag and reclining chair can make meteor watching more comfortable.
  • Thermos with a hot drink.
  • Your eyes. You won’t need (or want) a telescope or binoculars to see the meteors. But we will have telescopes at the Jordan Lake skywatching session so you can look at Jupiter and other celestial objects in between your meteor watching.

What to do:

  • Plan on staying out for a while. Your eyes need time to adapt to the dark, and the meteors may come in clumps—with none at all for several minutes, then a few right in a row.
  • Look up! The Geminid meteors appear to radiate away from a point near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini, but you do not need to know how to identify Gemini to see the meteors. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. You might try looking toward whatever is the darkest part of your sky.

If you miss the Geminids tonight, you might try tomorrow night (Dec. 14/15, 2012), although there likely won’t be as many meteors then.