Building Community Under the Stars

Michelle Nichols Director of Public Observing
Michelle Nichols helping young skywatchers observe the sky at a 'Scopes in the City event.
July 5, 2019 Tags:


In September 2016, we—the Adler’s ’Scopes in the City team—brought a telescope to the Wrightwood-Ashburn library branch on Chicago’s southwest side and set it up in front of the library. This branch has a beautifully clear view of the sky with no tall buildings in the way. A teen involved in other library programs came up and started to hang out with me. I showed her how to use the telescope, and she immediately began explaining how the telescope works to other passers-by.

I stepped back and let her lead the effort. She was incredibly engaging, and quite a few people stopped to look through the telescope, chat, and ask questions, many hanging out with us for 30 minutes or more. One little girl looked through the telescope more than a dozen times. A group of ladies from the library’s knitting club came outside after finishing their meeting. We invited them to look through the telescope, and the exclamations of delight were amazing. In return, the ladies offered us cupcakes. Our telescope was the center of an impromptu little community for an hour.

When people find out I have been working at the Adler Planetarium for almost 24 years, they often ask me, “What is the best part of your job?” The answers are almost endless, but the one thing I keep coming back to is this:

The excitement, glee, wonder, or shock on a person’s face when she or he looks through a telescope for the first time is inspiring. Seeing spots on the Sun (safely, of course!), moons of Jupiter, rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon with your own eyes—seeing these dots and places as real worlds, seeing them as they look in pictures in a book or magazine—these are the experiences that, for many people, instantly turn astronomy from an esoteric subject into a Universe of real places.

In 2014, the Adler Planetarium debuted ’Scopes in the City to bring telescope observing to people where they are and get eyeballs to the eyepiece. It was obvious from the beginning that ’Scopes was going to be impactful, and it was also obvious that we were going to need some help to reach people. In 2015, we began searching for a partner, and the Chicago Public Library seemed like a natural fit. Eighty library branches are located all over Chicago, and libraries provide an impressive array of services to Chicago residents.

When we began talking with the Teen Programs staff at the Harold Washington Library about what we could do together, facilitating ’Scopes in the City programs at library branches seemed to all of us like a slam-dunk. Starting with two grants from the Hive Chicago Learning Network, we surveyed all of the library branches in person to ascertain how much of the sky could be seen from each location, compiled check-out kits of astronomy and optics materials for librarians to use in their programs, purchased several telescopes that would be housed at five branches, and taught library staff how to use those telescopes. We also taught a number of teens at YouMedia technology centers how to use the telescopes.

Our partnership has continued. This past summer, four of our teen interns worked with Adler staff to provide ’Scopes in the City observing experiences at 10 library branches. In part thanks to the Chicago Public Library Teen Services Department, ’Scopes in the City has grown from four pilot events reaching 600 people in 2014 to almost 40 events reaching more than 2,000 people in 2018.

Pointing out stars, planets, the Moon, the Sun, showing nearby worlds in our Universe, cultivating temporary telescope communities, and working closely with a partner such as the Chicago Public Library is critical to the success of ’Scopes, and the responses from our partners and the community inspire me every day.

That night in 2016, after the event at the Wrightwood-Ashburn library wrapped and everyone else had left, the branch manager asked if I could show her where the Big Dipper was in the sky. I told her to turn around and face north. The Dipper was resting in the sky just above the roof of the library. She saw it, screamed, and gave me a big hug. She said, “I have wanted someone to show me where the Big Dipper was for my whole life. Thank you!”

Join us at 'Scopes in the City!
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Michelle Nichols Director of Public Observing

Michelle Nichols earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1995, and a Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National-Louis University in 2002. Michelle has been employed by the Adler since 1995 and has been on many staff teams to develop exhibits, planetarium shows, and fun programs and events for Adler visitors. As Director of Public Observing, Michelle leads the Adler’s various telescope and sky observing efforts, including the ‘Scopes in the City telescope outreach program, free nighttime observing in the Doane Observatory via Doane at Dusk, Adler’s telescope volunteer program, and much more.

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