Former Education Specialist & Dark Skies Coordinator
Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
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“We recognized that in order to secure the best possible future for our night skies, we would need to take our dark sky message directly to the communities whose decisions about lighting most directly impact the skies over the park.”
– Zach Schierl.
Promoting Dark Sky Protection
For years, Cedar Breaks National Monument, like many other national & state parks across the Colorado Plateau, has hosted regular “star parties”, drawing hundreds of visitors every weekend to enjoy the dark night skies of Cedar Breaks. Unfortunately, these skies are increasingly threatened by the rapidly growing nearby cities of Cedar City and St. George, UT.
Several years ago, park staff began to realize these star parties were not enough when it came to promoting the protection of dark night skies in the area. Most of the visitors who attend our star parties are from other states, or even other continents! While these programs allow us to spread the dark sky message far and wide, we recognized that in order to secure the best possible future for our night skies, we would need to take our dark sky message directly to the communities whose decisions about lighting most directly impact the skies over the park.
The Master Astronomer Program
Enter the Master Astronomer Program, a 40-hour hands-on workshop where local residents can learn more about astronomy, telescopes, and protecting the night sky. The Master Astronomer Program was modeled after the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs taught across the country, which consist of classroom workshops followed by volunteer service. Our workshop meets 1-2 times per week for 10 weeks. Some sessions take place in the classroom, while others take place at Cedar Breaks NM, Zion National Park, and other dark locations around our corner of Utah. Workshops consist of interactive activities on:
- Basic astronomy and stargazing
- How to use backyard telescopes
- The importance of dark night skies
- Communicating astronomy and dark sky preservation to the public
Cedar Breaks created the Master Astronomer Program out of a desire to engage more deeply with our surrounding communities on dark sky issues. Development began in early 2016 with discussions about goals and objectives. We soon began writing lessons plans as well as a program handbook. Content development was guided by a strong desire to offer a workshop that was unique, fun, interactive, and equipped local residents to become stewards of our dark night skies. Quite frequently, locals attending Cedar Breaks star parties express interest in learning more and getting involved. The Master Astronomer Program serves this need by providing a comprehensive “crash course” in astronomy weaved together with education on the importance of dark sky preservation and with a strong community focus.
This combination distinguishes the Master Astronomer Program from traditional college-level astronomy courses, which often include little or no information on light pollution, dark skies, or effective outreach techniques. To our knowledge, the Master Astronomer Program is the first program of its kind to be offered by a National Park Service unit.
Creation of the Master Astronomer Program was led by myself and Leesa Ricci, a talented astronomy educator and graduate of Southern Utah University here in Cedar City, with the assistance of many other Cedar Breaks staff members and volunteers who have helped us review and revise our materials.
We went live with our first pilot workshop in the spring of 2017. A year and a half later, we are now in the midst of offering our fourth 40-hour workshop (three in Cedar City and one in Hurricane/St. George) and have had a total of 45 people participate in the Master Astronomer Program. Graduates have recorded more than 800 hours of volunteer service in the name of astronomy and dark sky education throughout the region. For example, Master Astronomer graduates have:
- Presented to local city councils on light pollution.
- Talked to their HOAs about good outdoor lighting.
- Assisted with summer star parties at Cedar Breaks and other parks throughout Utah.
- Served as caretakers for our Library Telescope Program.
- Led events for the Southwest Astronomy Festival.
Many participants have become regular volunteers at Cedar Breaks NM, allowing us to expand our dark sky program offerings and reach even more visitors and community members. Several of our graduates have even gone on to be employed by the National Park Service at parks across the Colorado Plateau and the nation. We also offer regular continuing education workshops for program alumni and a monthly e-newsletter to keep participants engaged well after they have completed the 40-hour workshop.
Looking to the Future
Over the past several years, the Master Astronomer Program has contributed to the creation of a passionate and knowledgeable group of astronomers and dark sky advocates here in southwest Utah. While we look forward to growing the program locally, we are also looking toward the future and thinking of ways to expand the Master Astronomer Program into other areas. We hope to soon make available our program handbook and instructor’s guide to other parks, communities, and organizations interested in starting a similar program in their backyard. To learn more, or to receive a link to these materials when they are ready, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zach grew up under the star-filled skies of the world’s first International Dark Sky City, Flagstaff, AZ. He holds a bachelors degree in geology and astronomy from Whitman College, and a Masters in geology (with an emphasis in geoscience education) from Western Washington University.
An avid photographer and hiker, Zach has taught community college astronomy and geology courses and worked as an educator and dark skies advocate at Lowell Observatory as well as several national and county parks and monuments.
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