In movies and TV, the practice of astronomy is sometimes represented as a solitary venture, isolated from the rest of society. To an extent this is true: the best observations take place in remote locations in order to avoid light pollution and other atmospheric and electromagnetic interference. That doesn’t mean that astronomers, as human beings, are unconnected and unconcerned with the communities in which they live. Stars and Story takes a look at ways that astronomical organizations on Hawai‘i Island support and share their resources with the community at large, especially in this time of COVID-19.
Helping Feed the Hungry
Hawai‘i Island’s food assistance program, The Food Basket, has witnessed growing need as health and safety measures enacted in response to COVID-19 paused the tourism industry. As the effects have percolated throughout the state, more families have experienced difficulties in putting food on their tables.
Wally Ishibashi, senior advisor at the Office of Maunakea Management, asked The Food Basket how his organization could help. In conjunction with the Institute for Astronomy, Maunakea Observatories (MKO), and Maunakea Observatories Support Services, volunteers started meeting weekly as of April 27, and continue to do so, to shuttle vans full of food boxes across East Hawai‘i. They deliver to Hāmākua, Hilo, Pāhoa, Kalapana, Mountain View, Eden Roc, Wainaku, and Volcano.
“The Food Basket is doing such important work, meeting critical—and growing—needs for food security in our community. Our role here is to help them however we can,” said MKO volunteer Jessica Dempsey from the East Asian Observatory.
On a related note, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) donated $100,000 to The Food Basket in April. The donation was made in memory of Barry Taniguchi, the CEO of Hawai‘i’s KTA Super Stores. He was a TMT supporter, and helped establish The Food Basket; he was its chair at the time of his passing.
Donations of Masks and Other PPE
Both Subaru Observatory and the TMT have donated masks and other personal protective equipment to the community.
In April, Subaru donated masks, goggles, and gloves that they had stored at the summit for telescope maintenance to the Hilo Medical Center.
Staff with the TMT have donated hand-sewn reusable cloth masks to the Children’s Justice Center of East Hawaii, starting in May and with intentions to continue as long as Covid-19 remains a threat.
“Staying at home made me want to do something positive and give back to my community on behalf of TMT because I feel so fortunate to have a job, health insurance and a regular paycheck,” said a TMT Hilo employee. “This is a nice opportunity to help the Hawaii Island community, providing non-medical masks to social workers during these unprecedented times. When I suggested it, TMT immediately agreed to pay for materials. Hawai‘i has been hit hard by coronavirus. As everywhere else in the world, it is important for everyone to wear a clean face cover when out in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
In August, TMT staff also donated hand-sewn masks to Hawai‘i Island public schools.
Astronomical organizations in Hawai‘i regularly offer many opportunities to the public to engage and learn more about astronomy. They continue to do so with social distancing measures in mind.
Hilo’s ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center has aimed, through its planning in the 1990s up to the current day, to comprehensively showcase Hawaiian history and the island’s contemporary astronomical science. Well worth seeing in person, the 40,000-sq.ft. exhibition and planetarium complex is, unfortunately, now closed. Yet it has adjusted, and offers many guided learning opportunities in its program ‘Imiloa at Home: Resources for Backyard Explorers.
In April, MKO launched a new program—MKO@Home online, with videos loaded three times a week (on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) featuring astronomy-related activities, demonstrations and interviews.
Bob McClaren, the interim director of the Institute for Astronomy, said, “The Maunakea Observatories recognize the severe educational difficulties that COVID-19 is creating for the community, and we are doing as much as we can to address this challenge. We are rallying all of our outreach resources and will be presenting as much content as possible during this unprecedented crisis.”
Speaking of Bob McClaren, he will be giving a talk, joinable on Zoom, on September 2, ”Modern Astronomy On Maunakea: A 60-Year Story (1960-2020).” This is part of Keck Observatory’s free events to the public, with talks aimed toward the general public about the work astronomers do.
And So Much More
We have looked at some of the support and outreach Hawai‘i’s astronomical organizations have been doing since COVID-19 changed our lives. That is to say nothing about the ongoing opportunities they offer, and have offered: workshops for teachers. Public speaking events to the general public. Work experience, training, and mentorship for students and adults. And more. Links are provided below, if you would like to explore more about them.
Thanks to Thayne Currie and Carolyn Kaichi for their help with this post.
Outreach and distance learning opportunities in Hawai‘i
Note: Some of these activities (such as public tours of an observatory) are not currently available due to COVID-19. They are included to give a general idea of the types of community outreach that are conducted.
The Akamai Workforce Initiative, a partnership of 21 participating organizations, offers STEM (science, techonlogy, engineering, mathematics) mentorships and internships
Many other astronomical organizations also offer free online resources and events, such as the ones linked below. Just search “astronomy online outreach” to find more!
The Office of Astronomy for Development, and joint project of the International Astronomical Union and the South African National Research Foundation