Robinson Observatory (RO) is an astronomy outreach and education facility on the main campus of the University of Central Florida (UCF). Using our stable of 8-inch portable telescopes, our events typically provide in-person night-sky experiences to over 1000 people per year, including UCF students, K-12 students, Scouts, and the general public. While these events are clearly popular, it was unclear whether we were truly serving the needs and expectations of our visitors, and if modifications to our operations could enable us to bring meaningful astronomy experiences to audiences we were not yet reaching. Furthermore, during the COVID pandemic, we attempted a transition to an online modality, something we had never before tried, and we were especially wary of logistical and communication pitfalls that might hinder informal education.
To aid in assessing RO’s outreach strategy and improving its outreach efforts, we established a collaboration between RO, a UCF Technical Communication faculty member, and graduate students in a user-centered design (UCD) course. UCD is a formal design process in which designers involve users at all stages of product development, iterating between aspects of a project to improve usability and accessibility. One overarching goal of UCD is to make users partners in the development process to ensure that their voices are heard.
For this project, the students worked with RO staff and previous visitors to develop recommendations for four areas of RO’s outreach: in-person events, website, social media, and live online outreach programs. Students employed a combination of research techniques in a structured process, including audience analysis, surveys, cognitive walkthroughs, comparative content audits, and site visits. While both in-person RO events and student meetings were curtailed by COVID precautions, by the course conclusion the students were able to provide recommendations for improved communications, site safety, outreach to underrepresented groups, and event management. Implementation of the UCD recommendations is now happening in the current academic year. In this poster, we will describe our project work and discuss potential opportunities and challenges for working with students on outreach evaluation activities. This presentation should be helpful for others without formal outreach training who are interested in assessing their outreach work.