Oxford Stargazing+



  • To engage new audiences with space science through creative, engaging and hands-on activity.
  • To facilitate positive interactions between scientists and the public.
  • To encourage partnerships between scientists, educators and community providers.
  • To inspire participants to engage further with the University.


Our annual Stargazing Oxford events allow up to 100 researchers to showcase their work and interact with the public through a variety of activities including stalls, talks and hands-on activities. The events are a great success and attract around 1,000 people to the department each year. However, we also recognise that the events are largely accessed by members of the public who are already engaged with science. Through Stargazing+ we wanted to look at engaging new, under-served, audiences with space-themed research at Oxford. The initiative is delivered through our Community Engagement programme.

Stargazing+ is delivered through a series of project strands:

Out of this World Family Fun Days: We worked with the ‘Oxford for Oxford’ project, Department for Continuing Education and RAL Space to obtain funding from the UK Space Agency and take our Stargazing research stalls and activities into areas of the community which do not traditionally engage with the University or science. This led to two events in the East of Oxford within venues located in POLAR3 Quintile 2 and Quintile 1, meaning that the activities could be accessed by young people from areas of low current progression to higher education. Engaging with these groups is important, as recent research has demonstrated that lack of science capital is a serious problem for disadvantaged children and one which creates a major barrier to careers in STEM.

In April 2016, over 30 researchers, tutors and students from the Departments of Physics and Continuing Education took part in a day at Templar Square Shopping Centre, Cowley. Approximately 400 members of the public took part in activities. In November 2016, 23 researchers and 160 members of the public took part in an event at Barton Community Centre, many of whom engaged with our activities for several hours. The combination of these venues and tried and tested activities allowed the Family Fun Days to attract participants who might otherwise not engage with an ‘educational’ activity outside of school hours, and in particular those who had not previously engaged with activity run by the University of Oxford.

We continue to visit Templar Square Shopping Centre, Cowley each year with our Particle Physics hands-on stall "Seeing invisible particles" during the IF Oxford Festival. We also visited the centre for the Sing Song Physics project.

SPACE and YOU: These are annual Stargazing-style events in the University that have taken place every autumn from October 2017, to engage children with Additional Support Needs (ASN) and their families. They enable participants to explore different aspects of space science through engaging hands-on activities; from building the early universe with Duplo to being taken on a guided tour of the stars. For many participants it is not possible to engage in mainstream events; the heightened noise and social contact can be overwhelming for people with ASN, and parents can feel judged according to how they manage their behaviour. The first SPACE and YOU (in Autumn 2017) allowed 15 such families to access activities in a relaxed environment, with dedicated quiet areas provided if needed. Each family was allocated a guide on arrival, who stayed with the family throughout their visit. A number of our stargazing activities were adapted for this audience. Over the past three years, we have reached approximately forty young people with ASN and their families and for the September 2019 event many of the participants, were from KEEN Oxford, an award-winning charity and youth-led movement for inclusion. KEEN creates, supports, and promotes inclusive opportunities for often excluded groups, including disabled people, and provided us with expertise and experience in engaging this audience. We are looking at how we may work with them further in the future.

We target specific areas of Oxfordshire with high levels of economic deprivation and low existing support, to create better opportunities for often excluded groups. We were delighted to provide access for a large group from across these areas to Space and You through our partnership with Oxford Physics, and are excited by the scope for future work together

Rupert da Silva, Director, KEEN

O'Hanlon House: On Thursday 17th May 2018 a team of our researchers visited O'Hanlon House for the first time with a collection of interesting demonstrations to talk about space and the Universe. O’Hanlon House provides a resettlement floor for around 66 homeless people aged 18+ in central Oxford. We had a giant Lego model of the Extremely Large Telescope on display along with the infrared camera and discharge lamps to discuss multiwave astronomy and spectra. Over the course of the session 20 clients came over to ask questions and discuss the demonstrations. The Extremely Large Telescope was of particular interest and sparked lots of interesting conversations about what the instruments will discover and space exploration more generally. This was a really interesting experience for everyone involved. The staff at O'Hanlon House were brilliant and it was a privilege to be part of a programme of activities designed to empower clients in difficult circumstances. We returned in May 2019 with another set of activities, including a VR headset to explore the universe in multiple wavelengths.

Were the events successful? Questionnaires were carried out at the first SPACE and YOU and the Out of this World events. The number of questionnaires completed were 46 responses at Cowley, 33 at Barton and we received 8 questionnaires and 2 emails from the SPACE and YOU day. These questions were designed to allow the organisers to improve the event in the future, evaluate the extent to which the groups had participated in the activities as well as the extent to which the event had achieved its aim of encouraging participation in future educational events. For the second outreach event at O’Hanlon House (homeless shelter), the evaluation was undertaken by keeping a written record of reactions to the demonstration, as well as an informative statements or discussions.

We successfully reached our target audiences:

  • A survey of 46 individuals and family groups at the shopping centre revealed that we met out aim to engage with hard-to-reach audiences. Over a third of the people had a) never been to a University event (37%), b) had come from areas in the bottom 40% of young participation rates in HE (38%) and c) were from communities that are defined as areas of ‘fanatically stretched’ or ‘urban adversity’ (33%). (56%) were domiciled in POLAR Quintiles 1-3, the areas of lowest participation in higher education and target postcodes for WP interventions.
  • Questionnaires carried out at Barton Neighbourhood Centre indicated that 48% of participants were from East Oxford which includes neighbourhoods experiencing multiple levels of deprivation (low skills, low incomes and relatively high levels of crime). It also revealed that nearly half of the people attending had not previously been to an event in the University of Oxford (48%).
  • We engaged with 15 families, with a total of 61 people and a service dog at the first SPACE and YOU event. This was advertised to Special Needs Schools in Oxfordshire. The Downs Society Oxfordshire and the Oxfordshire Blind Association also advertised it for us. This event was not advertised to the general public and was only open to children with Additional Support Needs and their families.
  • We engaged with 40 individuals over the two events.

Positive experiences: The majority of the activities were hands-on and interactive to ensure there were plenty of opportunities for dialogue between scientists and participants. The word cloud (below) is the results of asking participants at Barton Community Centre to describe the event in three words. Feedback from the SPACE and YOU day was excellent with everyone thoroughly enjoying it.

Observations at the second homeless shelter visit indicated that the VR experience helped to spark curiosity and wonder about the Universe. The VR system was a draw, with most participants coming over specifically to use the VR headset, particularly after seeing others using it. There were, however, some participants of the other who did not use the VR system and could not be encouraged: it is not clear what put these people off. Most participants therefore spent 5-10 minutes with the headset on, whilst only one spent less than 3 minutes. It was noted that even when the headset was being used, the system acted as a draw which brought participants over and started discussions. It also frequently initiated discussions which would last longer than the period of the demo, encouraging the audience to engage with the demonstrators on a range of topics. The demo tended to provoke an immediate visceral or emotional reaction, (e.g. exclamations of “oh wow”). Responses during the demo showed engagement (questions such as “space is so big, how can you tell?” or “where is that galaxy?”). For two participants is seemed to spark their imagination (e.g. follow up questions such as “is Asgard real?”, relating to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and “wouldn’t it be great if we could travel there?”). One participant reflected on the scale of the Universe (“Makes you feel insignificant, just a speck of dust”), showing an increase in knowledge about the Universe and our place in it and changed perception. Feedback from liaison officers indicated that the VR system was a good form of escape, and noted for one participant that it was the “first time I have seen her smile in a long time”. It was clear that the participants formed part of a section of society who are less likely to be exposed to these ideas, or to the use of VR as entertainment and education, in the course of their day-to-day lives.

Engaging with the University: From the questionnaire data, nearly all (93%) of the participants at Cowley and over three quarters (79%) at Barton felt that based on ‘Out of this World’ they would attend a University event in the future. This suggests that the event did achieve its aim of creating enthusiasm to engage with university events again in the future.

One key lesson learned from the Out of this World day was the power of bringing public engagement activities outside the physical boundaries of the university, as running activities in the community enabled significant engagement with traditionally hard-to-reach groups. There was also plenty in the feedback to help us to continue to develop these days and for the researchers to develop their activities.

Project impact
: Overall, we hit our targets of engaging hard to reach members of the public who wouldn’t have otherwise participated in activities held in the university. Feedback was positive from participants and we now endeavour to work with participants in the hope they engage with us further. We appreciate that these “single interaction” with participants may not lead to participants changing their path or interest, so what we now need and plan to do is to engage in a sustained effort at targeting these same audiences with different activities. We will run follow-up events at the University with invites sent out to participants to track if they attend. As an extension of the project we have built up a relationship with Oxford Academy (situated in East Oxford). This has led to visits to the university (100 students in year 9) and teacher training activities in the school.

Quotes from the ‘Out of this World’ event at Cowley:

The activities were great and I admired the determination of the students doing the craft area to really communicate the Physics as well as cutting, sticking and colouring!”(Parent)
Excellent event at Templar Square today. Big thanks to all that made that possible. I learnt so much stuff about Science and space. Truly great. Thanks.” (Adult attendee)
Quotes for the SPACE and YOU event:
First time we have managed to access anything like this as a family
Joseph loved it [the event] and very proudly showed off his certificate to his class friends
My daughters have already been Googling and talking about what they learned
We appreciated the thought that had gone into making the activities engaging for our children
“Wasn’t overwhelming, nicely spaced out and not too many people
Fantastic Afternoon, easy access, interesting content and friendly staff

The events raised awareness within the Department of the importance of engaging audiences in areas of Oxford with lower progression rates to university and allowed researchers to build capacity for engaging with children and families from disadvantaged backgrounds. It provided opportunity to self-evaluate their activities for specific audiences that would otherwise form part of the ‘general public’. This has resulted in new activities being created that will also benefit a broader audience. Collaborative support from the ‘Oxford for Oxford’ team was useful in developing scientists’ capacity to communicate their research clearly to a diverse audience. Feedback from participants on specific activities will be included in the planning of future events by researchers.

I really enjoyed the event as a whole, and seeing the enthusiasm of young children experiencing science always reminds me why we do it in the first place” (Researcher)

What next?: These Stargazing+ activities will be embedded into the Department’s annual public engagement plan and we are looking for new venues for the community events. We are continuing to build relationships with the secondary schools in the East of Oxford so hopefully we can encourage further participation from teenagers, who could have been better represented at these events. The central outreach team are now planning additional family events in the target areas by developing a physics partnership with The Oxford Academy and several of their feeder primary schools with funding from the Ogden Trust. In January we plan to have a dedicated hour for children with ASN and their families at our Stargazing event and we will run a dedicated space themed evening for young carers at the university.