Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Dr Sandra Voss, Science Director,

The Observatory Science Centre, Herstmonceux (APP 15)

1. Introduction

1.1 The Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceux, East Sussex offers a unique visitor experience. Situated at the former home of The Royal Greenwich Observatory, the hands-on exhibits aim to give everyone the opportunity to experience first-hand, science and technology through specially designed equipment. With the added bonus of exploring historic telescopes and domes, The Observatory offers an enthralling and atmospheric visit.

1.2 Following the closure of The Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux in 1990, Science Projects Ltd took over the lease of the buildings and opened the Science Centre. With all the historic telescopes still in place and crying out to be brought back to life a heritage lottery grant was secured and alongside an exhibition telling the story of the Royal Greenwich Observatory the telescopes and domes were refurbished. Using these instruments which were formerly at the cutting edge of International research, The Centre was now ready to effectively engage the public and bring astronomy back to Herstmonceux.

2. Visitors

2.1 The Centre attracts approximately 60,000 visitors per year from all walks of life and all ages. Family groups make up the majority of visitors but one-third of this number is from schools, both primary and secondary. A number of visiting school groups, as well as scouting and guiding groups, come along for twilight evenings when they take advantage of being able to look through the telescopes (weather permitting). Specialist groups (U3A, Astronomical Societies, Rotary Club etc) hire The Centre for private evenings or come along during the day and book private telescope tours.

3. Events and Activities

3.1 The Centre offers a broad range of astronomy and other science related activities. There are over 100 fully interactive hands-on exhibits based around permanent themes of Light and Colour, Earth and Beyond, Forces, Astronomy and Time. Two other temporary exhibitions are interchanged during the year providing a fresh feel to The Centre and presenting returning visitors a different experience. Guided telescope tours are conducted during the day and at busier times fun, interactive science shows are also regularly performed.

3.2 There is a full programme of special events and seasonal activities planned every year which includes children’s workshops, drop-in activity areas, Open Evenings when the public can gain access to the historic telescopes, Themed evenings (usually based around astronomical events such as meteor showers etc.), evening astronomy courses and the annual Astronomy Festival.

3.3 Scouting and Guiding groups can carry out specific badge work activities and businesses can take part in corporate Team Challenge days. Specialised workshops have been developed for schools and are part of the wide range of activities offered to schools during their visit to The Centre.

4. Funding

4.1 As an educational charity with no core funding, The Centre has relied on and been grateful to funding bodies such as STFC (and formerly PPARC) to help fund specific astronomy related events and activities. In the past we have been successful with applications through either the Small Awards Scheme or the more specific Science Centre Award Scheme which was rolled out in 2005.

4.2 The awards have helped to promote different aspects of space and astronomy not only to schools but also to a wider public audience. STFC have always been approached for funding because of the specific nature of their award schemes. By definition, this narrows the number of applicants and therefore increases the chances of receiving grants.

4.3 Initially when the Centre first applied to the PPARC Small Award Scheme, funding could be gained for projects requiring £500 - £15,000. The Centre successfully secured a £5,000 award to help fund "Einstein looks over a Festival of Physics." This enabled the Centre to host a Family Fun Evening and a mobile Physics cart. The introduction of the more specific Science Centre Award Scheme which offered £500 - £25,000 gave an even better opportunity to fund larger projects and in 2006 the Centre was awarded just over £17,000 to fund a "Solar Physics Experience." This helped to develop a workshop for KS4 students which otherwise would not have been possible to fund and which has given The Centre an excellent opportunity to engage older students in more diverse areas of astronomy. This in turn offers students a chance to work with specialised equipment not necessarily available in school. This workshop is still being taken up by schools and will remain part of The Centre’s educational package in future years. In preparation for International Year of Astronomy another application was made through the Science Centre Award Scheme in 2008. By this time the upper limit of the fund had been reduced to £20,000. The Centre was fortunate to secure £10,000 to help fund a wide range of events throughout the year. In the current economic climate this funding was extremely valuable and helped to ensure visitor number was maintained during 2009 when it was clear that other visitor attractions were suffering.

4.4 Looking to fund further projects this year (2011) it was noted with disappointment that the Science Centre Award Scheme had been withdrawn and the upper limit of the Small Award Scheme has been reduced to £10,000. However a Schools Grant Scheme has been added for projects up to £500. While the Large Award Scheme offers funding from £10,000 - £100,000 there is more emphasis on research with strong links to the STFC scientific research community. Science Centre projects would be competing with University research departments. The funding procedure is also more complicated with a two stage process.

5. Conclusion

5.1 Science Centres are valuable gateways, bridging the gap between formal and informal learning, making science exciting and above all fun. As the former home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory there is a strong emphasis on astronomy, a subject that is perceived by many as boring or too difficult. However, by offering events and activities which make astronomy more accessible in a relaxed, informal setting, Centres such as The Observatory Science Centre are able to help inspire the next generation as well as foster further interest in those who are merely curious about the night sky. On Open Evenings or twilight group visits, when the public/schools/cubs/scouts/brownies etc can view through the historic telescopes, often the greatest measure of success is how many "wows" you hear and the best compliment is when people come back. From evaluation forms and word of mouth feedback The Centre does attract many repeat visitors.

5.2 With funding being cut in this area of public engagement and outreach it will become increasingly more difficult to offer activities over and above those that are already part of the annual programme. Development of specific workshops for targeted Key Stages takes time and money and without a broader spectrum of granting bodies that offer a reasonable amount of funds, this area will suffer. Teachers are often constrained by time and money.

5.3 This has a knock on effect of what they can achieve in terms of practical activities to supplement their subject matter. Science Centres can certainly help by providing a hub from which schools can access a wider variety of specialised equipment and practical

activities. These activities could also be shared with the wider public and specific interest groups such as astronomical societies or scouting and guiding groups.

5.4 In 2010 following the BBC Wonders of the Solar System series The Centre attracted nearly 400 people on one event alone – "An Evening with the Planets." The success of this programme has now been carried on through the recent BBC programme, Stargazing LIVE. These programmes have certainly brought awareness to the public (gauged by the enormous success overall and our own success on a cloudy night when 170 people came to The Centre). It would be a real pity if this enthusiasm is not encouraged with more not less funding being given to public engagement in astronomy either through Science Centres, planetariums or other outreach bodies.

Dr Sandra Voss

Science Director

The Observatory Science Centre


15 February 2011