Community Connectors: Wayne Schlingman

News — October 6, 2023

Community Connectors: Wayne Schlingman

October 2023

Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact. (Wayne Schlingman (left) and Emily Griffith working on planetarium system.)

Wayne Schlingman, Ph.D.
Director of the Arne Slettebak Planetarium
College of Arts and Sciences / Astronomy

I have had the incredible opportunity to oversee a hub of science outreach since 2014 when I became a Buckeye. At the Arne Slettebak Planetarium we create awe inspiring moments and interdisciplinary collaboration. Groups travel across state lines to come to Ohio State for what we offer the nation and the world; the planetarium is a destination for many. We give shows to all age groups and emphasize that everyone can be a scientist or contribute to science no matter their interests. In addition to planetarium shows, we host star parties on the roof of Smith lab for hundreds of people to attend. Some of our long-standing partners in the community are our libraries where we run evening programs with telescopes, long and short talks by experts and answer huge numbers of questions about the wonders of space.

In addition to the planetarium and astronomy outreach, I am on the WestFest planning committee, a long-standing science and sustainability festival at Ohio State open to all ages. I have also written the state exams for Science Olympiad. One of my greatest joys has been to assist running summer camps and inspiring teens for the last 20 years in Arizona at Astronomy Camp.

Why is engaging the community important to you and your work?

I come from a field that puts a significant amount of emphasis on community engagement and outreach (Astronomers have an outsize passion for outreach), we all just agree it is important. Astronomy is an automatic win to get the attention of most people, with the wonders of deep space, imagery that is literally world shattering sometimes, and it is inherently inspiring. Day to day operations and administrative buildup can sometimes make me forget why I got into the field. We cannot do science without our communities supporting it, financially, with interest and having new people constantly entering the field. In astronomy, as technologies become cheaper, we are integrating citizen science into people's lives. Everyone can help make discoveries because there are not enough astronomers on Earth to tackle some of the big questions we have.

Astronomy, to me, encompasses everything; we study the universe and every human construct within the universe. It also takes humans from every field to work at NASA, make discoveries and make the whole exploration enterprise work. I love that I can take a group of kids and ask them what they love to do for fun and relate that to an explicit career in a space related field. "Science isn't for me" is an excuse we hear too often because no one showed someone how their skills can push science forward. We need artists, we need accountants, coders, writers and builders. Everyone is capable and I love sharing that experience with others. I don't care what someone wants to study so much as they are doing it because they love it and not because they don't think they can do astronomy. The answers are out there and the technologies we need for the future are waiting for someone to ask the right questions!

What lessons have you learned from the community that have helped you as a university staff member?

One lesson I learned from the community is how much more we need to do and where we are weakest in education. Most decisions in this country are made blind to the people they affect. This goes for astronomy as well. Between light pollution, development of space, and just the ever-expanding need of humanity to share the full spectrum of light for communications etc., we must do our part in educating people about why we should protect our skies and the ability to study the universe. Engaging in conversations on how we can bring new technologies to light, benefit humanity AND also protect the natural resources we have is the step we need to take. Bringing in interdisciplinary collaborators together to have larger conversations about how small changes can have huge benefits for us all. The planetarium is a key place for the Ohio State community to have these discussions and learn from eachother.

What has been your favorite moment from your community-engagement work?

Working with humans of all ages in our community reminds me that astronomy is amazing. The universe has incredible wonders and I am honored with having the opportunity to share that experience with others. This is the most challenging question of them all. I narrowed it down to three moments.

After a public planetarium show in my second year at Ohio State, I had a four-year-old kid come back and ask me questions. Carl was his name and I got down on my knees and we had a face-to-face conversation about nuclear fusion and how it powers the Sun. He wanted to know how energy came out if four protons from hydrogen are squeezed together to make helium which has four nucleons (two protons and two neutrons). If four equals four, then where did the energy come from? I struggle to get my college students to learn this idea in general let alone question it. We talked about mass differences between protons and neutrons and E=mc2 as the reason for the energy that powers the Sun. It was after this that I learned his middle name was Sagan, after the famous physicist, and he was destined to study the stars. It is a highlight to me because I was having a true conversation with a four-year-old about what he was fascinated by in the universe. Age does not stop us from being curious and learning.

This summer, I was at Astronomy Camp and we made an eight-hour trek from the mountain observatory north of Tucson to the Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona. Ohio State is partner in the LBT and we built the enormous spectrographs bolted to the back of the telescope. This was our advance teen camp made of mostly high school campers. The trip itself is always an adventure driving up to over 10,000 ft. When we arrive, we unpack a large cargo van and have a sleepover inside of the lobby of the telescope. We then get a tour of the observing floor at sunset. We had 30 teenagers, at sunset, with the telescope doors open, and they were crying because they were so overwhelmed with emotions. Crying at being happy and being in an incredible place that is almost sacred in some ways. They were hugging each other and embracing as fellow nerds (their words). It was so awesome to see and that is the sort of passion that we bring to the community and inspire.

The last is more personal and its not as outreach focused as the others. Seeing the total solar eclipse in 2017 was nothing less than a magical experience. I had never experienced one before and I do not have the words to fully describe what a wall of darkness travelling at 1,000 miles per hour at you and seeing the stars coming out in the middle of the day feels like, without being there. While my experience was personal, the way the entire country came out to see it as it traversed the U.S., was incredible. The aftermath was also incredible in different ways and lead to years of planning for the 2024 total solar eclipse with a path of totality that traverses 2/3s of all counties in Ohio. Astronomical events happen whether we acknowledge it or not. The planets orbit, the stars shine, and comets glow all without need of us. Yet these immutable fixtures bring everyone together outside their homes to amazing displays, creating shared experiences. This is what I find so powerful about outreach and astronomy; it bonds us in wonder.

What advice do you have for other staff members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement?

I have two pieces of advice after thinking on this a bit this fall:

  • Dont go at it alone or reinvent the wheel
  • Just go out there and engage

No matter where you go there are always people around who are passionate about outreach and you can easily partner with them. Sometimes it's recasting your ideas in a slightly different light to fit a theme but then you can step back and focus on engagement and not worry about the details. One of the best places to do that on campus is WestFest. We set everything up for you, advertise, bring people in, get tents, organize the event, and all you have to do is have an interactive activity and show up. There are a number of these types of events and even if you attend just to meet other people you are learning how to engage. Another great option is to check out the STEAM Factory. There are so many amazing people who engage the public through the STEAM Factory and it's great to work with them and launch new ideas. Find your people and partner with them and it's no longer scary and often its way more fun!

My biggest piece of advice is to just go out there and do it. You don't need to have a big budget to engage with folks. For younger humans, you can decide who is young, just listening and engaging with them is powerful. Maybe it is finding out they have been interested in a career in your field and you can help them see a path, other times they don't like their field but want to find a science communications job or outreach job in the same field and you are that direct connection to possibility. People have passion and drive for our subjects, but they don't always see the future or how to get there themselves. While I am good at engaging large groups, I find my most meaningful and persistent effects come from small group interactions or one-on-one. To flip the script, I am often surprised by folks that come to our events that have LONG standing connections to the field as engineers, analysts, or other support type jobs that make NASA missions possible. I find that I learn as much from them as they do from me.