Faculty of Technology


Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Public or community group

Local and regional members of the public

Quick links

Project introduction

The Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) public Stargazing events began as a tie-in to the BBC TV programme ‘Stargazing Live’ which started in 2011, and have continued as an annual event.The BBC actively encouraged organisations to put on tie-in events in the first few years that the TV programme was broadcast, and provided resources to do so. The needs of the PCG were not particularly considered when these events first started, beyond a recognition that there were no public astronomy events taking place in the city for members of the public to attend.

Feedback collected from attendees after each event has helped to shape future events to better meet the needs of the attendees.

Project staff

  • Dr Jen Gupta, Outreach and Public Engagement Manager, 2012-present
  • Cordi Scott, Outreach and Public Engagement Manager (maternity cover), 2018-19
  • All staff and postgraduate students at the ICG, 2012 - present

Engaging with the target group

Since 2013, the ICG has organised an annual ‘Stargazing at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’ event, in collaboration with sites at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (PHD). Since 2014 the events have been held at Action Stations and HMS Warrior and organised in partnership with the two venues (currently both managed by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, NMRN). The event is free to attend, and nearly 1000 members of the public attended the event in January 2020*.

The events have grown in popularity each year and the free tickets sell out every year with minimal advertising, so not much work has been done to facilitate the ability of specific public or community groups to engage with the event. This year the NMRN did some targeted advertising to community groups in Portsmouth that they already work with (e.g. veterans) and this is something we plan to develop further for future events.

*Note: the 2014 event was organised by the BBC as one of their three national events, with the ICG as the main academic partner.

Support for the project

The Stargazing events receive a significant amount of support from the ICG and wider university.

The main event organiser is the Public Engagement and Outreach Manager, who is supported by the rest of the ICG outreach and public engagement team, in particular the PhD student outreach rep who coordinates the ICG contributions to the event. The majority of ICG members (staff and postgraduate students) contribute to the event on the night, staffing activities on stands to explain their research to the public and giving short talks. Volunteers are also recruited from the physics undergraduate students to help out with the activities. Additional support is provided by the Faculty of Technology and the Marketing and Communications team, who in 2020 helped with media, ticketing, social media, and answering enquiries that come in about the event.

As well as the content from the ICG, the event also has activities from the NMRN, and several additional external exhibitors, including the Hampshire Astronomical Group, Airbus Defence and Space and the South Downs National Park. In 2020, the event also had contributions from other UoP departments through collaborations with CCI.

The ICG outreach and public engagement programme is supported by a £15k budget which is allocated from internal funding as part of our South East Physics Network (SEPnet) membership agreement. £650 of this was allocated to the 2020 event to be spent on venue costs, refreshments for staff on the night, and materials for activities. The ICG outreach and public engagement programme is more widely supported by the SEPnet outreach and public engagement team and The Ogden Trust.

Recognition from the University

The events themselves haven’t explicitly been recognised, but Dr Gupta received a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in 2018, with the Stargazing events mentioned in the citation.

Examples of the activities delivered

The Stargazing at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard events are advertised as “An evening of astronomy, stargazing, space activities, cosmology chat and talks at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, with activities taking place on board HMS Warrior 1860 and in Action Stations”.

The focus of the ICG contribution to the event is on interactive, hands-on activities that are based on an aspect of ICG research. These are then used in the exhibition space on stands that are staffed by ICG members and undergraduate students. Recent examples of activities include a laser interferometer to show how the LIGO gravitational wave detector works and a custom-built arcade-style control panel for a gravitational wave event simulator. Other ICG public engagement and innovation projects are also showcased, such as the ‘Cosmic Stroll’ virtual reality app and the ‘Tactile Universe’ 3D printed galaxy images. There is also a programme of short talks throughout the evening, mostly given by ICG members about their research.

The event attracts an audience of a wide range of ages and prior astronomy knowledge. Therefore in addition to the research-focused activities, we also have activities that cover more basic concepts in astronomy and arts and crafts. These activities are mostly staffed by physics undergraduates.

There are also several other organisations that provide activities at the event to broaden the appeal. The National Museum of the Royal Navy offers several activities around navigation and links to stargazing. Hampshire Astronomical Group brings telescopes for attendees to look through. External activity providers in the past have included Airbus Defence and Space, the South Downs National Park and the European Space Agency. These external providers bring additional local connections and show different ways that space is relevant to attendees. In 2020, the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries brought two activities – the virtual reality ‘LEDsabres’ experience and an architecture exhibit about living on the Moon and Mars. Involvement from other areas of the university is something that we want to expand and grow - allowing attendees to engage with other parts of the university while providing an established event where colleagues from other departments can do some public engagement.

We know from the post-event feedback forms that a lot of attendees are repeat visitors from previous years, so we aim to have at least one new ICG activity each year.

How the activities met the identified needs

Attendee feedback is collected each year after the event. This is collected via a google form that is sent through eventbrite to everyone who registered for the event. Different questions are presented depending on whether the recipient said they attended the event or not.

Feedback about the event is overwhelmingly positive. We usually get a few comments that the event was too geared towards children and then a similar number saying that there wasn’t enough for children. To us this indicates that the balance of activities is right, but that we can do more to signpost people to activities that are appropriate for them.

In 2017 an evaluation of the events was carried out by a physics undergraduate summer student, funded by an STFC Small Award, to measure any longer-term impacts. A questionnaire was sent out to attendees of the previous events, to see if there had been any longer-term impacts on attendees. The findings from this were published in the Royal Astronomical Society’s A&G magazine.

In 2019 we brought in an external evaluation consultant to evaluate the 2020 event. As stated in the evaluation report, “Evaluation of the event was carried out in a mixed methods survey, including gathering key information through the registration process, an electronic questionnaire being distributed after the event, as well as in person interviews and observations on the night and a post-it instant feedback collection at the exit for ActionStations.

The findings from these two evaluations are given in the following sections.

Outcomes and impacts of the activities

We have evidence that the Stargazing events have an immediate effect on the attendees. For example, in the 2020 post-event feedback results, 86% of respondents said that they would be more likely to attend future ICG events having attended Stargazing 2020, and 72% said that they were more likely to visit a science museum, observatory or planetarium. 58% of respondents said that attending the event had changed their view (or the views of someone in their party) of astronomy and/or science.

The Stargazing events have also had a measurable longer-term impact on the attendees. The results of the follow-up survey showed that almost 70% of respondents reported a change in behaviour and attitude, answering that the events had increased their interest in astronomy, with a similar number reporting they had gone on to attend similar events, or participate in other astronomy-related activities.

Further evaluation on the long-term impact of the events is being planned.

Evaluating activities against project objectives

Each year an online feedback questionnaire is sent to the registered ticket holders on eventbrite. Recipients are asked if they attended the event or not, and then get a different set of questions depending on their answer. For those who did attend the event, the questionnaire includes questions about the event itself (e.g. favourite aspect, what could have been better), information about the attendees (e.g. highest science qualification, age, first part of postcode, and questions about immediate impact (change in view of astronomy, intention to do more science-related activities). If they did not attend the event, they are asked why.

In 2019/20 an external evaluation consultant, Dr Charlotte Thorley, was hired to carry out an evaluation of the 2020 Stargazing event. Working with the Public Engagement and Outreach Manager, she reworked the feedback questionnaire, embedding questions about postcode and links to the university into the Eventbrite registration form instead of asking post-event, and improving the online post-event feedback questionnaire. She also attended the event to carry out evaluation through in person interviews and observations on the night and a post-it instant feedback collection at the exit for ActionStations. This data was analysed and written up into an evaluation report.

Learnings from the project

The evolution of these events have been strongly influenced by the feedback we receive from the attendees. For example, we know that many people are repeat attendees at these events (over a quarter of 2020 feedback respondents had attended the previous year) so we make sure there is at least one new ICG activity (as well as trying to find new external activity providers) and that the talks are different each year. We stipulate that all activities must be staffed, after having negative feedback about passive activity stands in a previous year.

However, we also use our best judgement and reflect on our own experiences of the event, for example every year we have contradicting feedback where a few people say that there are too many activities for children, and others say that there are not enough. Instead of changing the content of the event, we intend to do more in the future to signpost people to activities that are appropriate to them.

One thing that we have become increasingly aware of since these events first started is the demographics of who attends (and doesn’t attend) these events. We recognise that these events are attractive to people who are already interested in astronomy (84% of 2020 feedback respondents said that one of the reasons they came was because they enjoy events about astronomy and space) and who are from areas with higher socioeconomic status (PO4 is the most represented postcode area for ticket holders). There are many barriers that underrepresented community groups can face when looking to attend an event like Stargazing.These include everything from lack of public transport (or that they’ll lose their parking space outside their house if they drive down for the evening) to a feeling that these events aren’t a place where they’ll fit in.

Instead of trying to change people to fit in with our event, we are looking at how we can change our public engagement events to be suitable for these community groups. For example, pre-lockdown we were starting to plan a mini Stargazing event in one of our partner secondary schools at a time that would suit the families of the children who we already engage with through the ICG schools outreach programme. Other options could be to partner with existing community organisations in different areas of Portsmouth, or work through the NMRN Community Producer to engage with the groups they already work with.