Stars ‘r’ Us! Engaging the Public with Astrochemical Research
Submitting InstitutionHeriot-Watt University
Unit of AssessmentChemistry
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Physical Sciences: Astronomical and Space Sciences
Chemical Sciences: Analytical Chemistry, Physical Chemistry (incl. Structural)
Summary of the impact
Stars `r' Us! (SRU) is a touring exhibition conceived in 2004 by
Professor Martin McCoustra to
engage the public with astrochemistry. SRU has been updated frequently,
most recently in 2010 to
include on-going work at Heriot-Watt University (HWU). SRU has contributed
regularly to major
science festivals, with independently corroborated strong impact on public
attitudes. Over its
lifetime, active researchers have interacted directly with an estimated
11,000 visitors, most of
whom were teenagers. SRU has further indirect reach through a widely
distributed teacher's pack.
It is also a valuable element of the public engagement programme at HWU
which has seen
demonstrably improved recruitment to chemistry programmes over recent
years. SRU has
engaged with the EU Commission through an ESF co-sponsored event:
has recently achieved preferred status in a Horizon 2020 foresighting
Stars `r' Us! (SRU, http://www.stars-r-us.org
) can trace it roots back to the early 2000s and the
publication of a short popular article by McCoustra, Fraser and Williams
in the Royal Astronomical
Society (RAS) house magazine Astronomy and Geophysics [DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2966.2009.15144.x]
and to the astrochemical science behind a publication for teachers in the
Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) journal Education in Chemistry. The
activities of SRU are
underpinned and informed today by the wide-ranging science originating
from within the HWU
Laboratory Astrochemistry Group (http://www.astrochemistry.hw.ac.uk)
and from other members of
the Framework 7 Initial Training Network (ITN) Laboratory Astrochemical
Surface Science In
Europe (LASSIE). SRU is broadly based and draws on the activities of all
its partners. The key
themes that SRU explores are:
- The role of spectroscopy in observing the chemical composition of the
local and more
- The importance of small molecules in controlling the formation of
small, long-lived stars;
- The interplay between chemistry in the gas phase and on dust grains;
- The role of surface and solid state chemistry in developing a rich
organic chemistry in star-forming
- The importance of that rich organic chemistry in seeding the galaxy
and the universe with
the chemical potential for life.
The work of the HWU Astrochemistry Group focuses on the broad theme of
the role of surface and
solid-state physics and chemistry in evolving the chemical complexity of
the regions where stars
and planets are formed towards the chemical progenitors of life; this has
a direct impact on the
final three bullet points listed above. That complexity can be observed to
a very limited extent in
the solid state, but infrared spectroscopy is insufficiently sensitive and
characteristic to provide
information on anything but the most abundant chemical species in the
solid state. However,
desorption and release of complex organic molecules into the gas phase
allows many more of the
chemical species present in these distant environments to be detected. The
of sensitive new observational platforms such as ALMA is revealing the
details of the complex
molecular inventory of the Universe. The key publications from the
activities of McCoustra and the
HWU Astrochemistry Group that are relevant to the development and
implementation of SRU are
listed below. The work listed highlights the role of laboratory
measurements of both thermal [1 - 3]
and non-thermal desorption [4 - 6] of molecules under conditions that
mimic the interstellar
medium. The first set of three publications relate to the development of
an understanding of the
thermal desorption of icy grain mantles [1 - 3], a process that is crucial
to the chemical control of
the star formation process. On the basis of this work at HWU, these
processes are better
described in physicochemical models of such environments. The latter three
recent and on-going work on desorption processes induced by light and
charged particles [4 - 6]
that are crucial in returning complex organic species to the interstellar
gas and compete effectively
with chemical evolution within radiation-rich environments. These
discoveries and the
understanding they provide of the processes that enrich the interstellar
gas with complex organic
molecules directly inform our discussion of the chemical evolution of the
Universe when engaging
with the public.
References to the research
(* = best indicates the quality of the underpinning research )
* Applying Laboratory Thermal Desorption Data in an Interstellar
Context: Sublimation of
Methanol Thin Films. S. D. Green, A. S. Bolina, R. Chen, M. P.
Collings, W. A. Brown and M. R. S.
McCoustra Mon. Not. Roy. Astron. Soc., 2009, 398, 357-367.
 Laboratory Investigations of the Interaction between Benzene and
Bare Silicate Grain Surfaces.
J. D. Thrower, M. P. Collings, F. J. M. Rutten and M. R. S. McCoustra,
Mon. Not. Roy. Astron.
Soc., 2009, 394, 1510-1518.
* Thermal Desorption of C6H6 from Surfaces
of Astrophysical Relevance. J. D. Thrower, M. P.
Collings, F. J. M. Rutten, and M. R. S. McCoustra, J. Chem. Phys., 2009,
* Desorption of Hot Molecules from Photon Irradiated Interstellar
Ices. J. D. Thrower, D. J.
Burke, M. P. Collings, A. Dawes, P. J. Holtom, F. Jamme, P. Kendall, W. A.
Brown, I. P. Clark, H.
J. Fraser, M. R. S. McCoustra, N. J. Mason and A. W. Parker, Astrophys.
J., 2008, 673, 1233-1239.
 Photon- and Electron-stimulated Desorption from Laboratory Models
of Interstellar Ice Grains.
J. D. Thrower, A. G. M. Abdulgalil, M. P. Collings, and M. R. S.
McCoustra, D. J. Burke, W. A.
Brown, A. Dawes, P. J. Holtom, P. Kendall, N. J. Mason, F. Jamme, H. J.
Fraser and F. J. M.
Rutten, J. Vac. Sci. Technol. A, 2010, 28, 799-806
 Highly Efficient Electron-stimulated Desorption of Benzene from
Amorphous Solid Water Ice.
J.D. Thrower, M. P. Collings, F. J. M. Rutten, and M. R. S. McCoustra,
Chem. Phys. Lett., 2011,
To support the operation of SRU, we have utilised funding from RCUK
sources both directly and
indirectly. Since 2010, SRU is has been supported by the LASSIE ITN under
Framework 7. The
awards that have supported SRU activities are listed below;
[A] Stars R Us! An Exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition.
2004, PPARC PP/B5Q1017/1
to McCoustra (HWU, PI) with Brown and Viti (UCL), Mason (OU), Fraser
(Leiden) and Massey
[B] AstroSurf: A Network in Surface Science Applications in
Laboratory Astrophysics. 2004 - 2007;
EPSRC GR/T05004/01 and GR/T05004/02 to McCoustra (HWU, PI) with Brown and
Mason (OU) and Darling (Liverpool); £66,934.
[C] Stars `r' Us!; The Cosmic Chemistry Connection. 2006,
EP/E022693/1 to McCoustra (HWU,
PI); Linked to EP/E022413/1 and EP/E022081/1 awarded to Brown (UCL) and
Fraser (Strathclyde); £2,598.
[D] Laboratory Astrochemical Surface Science in Europe (LASSIE).
2010, Framework 7 PEOPLE
Work Programme 2008 Grant Agreement Number 235258 to McCoustra (HWU,
colleagues from 12 other centres; 6, 053,548 Euro.
Details of the impact
Stars `r' Us! uses highly interactive exhibits to show how information
obtained from telescopic
observations, laboratory experiments and computer modelling is used to
infer clues about the
possible chemical origins of life. McCoustra led the development of the
contributions from UCL, the OU, Leiden Observatory and Royal Observatory
£25,000 was initially secured from various sources to fund the exhibition
including grant [A] above.
However this initial investment was supplemented by addition funding in
2006 ([B] and [C] above to
an estimated total of £10,000) and most recently in 2010 (from [D] to a
value estimated at £7,500).
Operating costs for SRU activities come from sources including the British
Council, RSC, ESF and
Resources created to accompany SRU include a comprehensive teacher's pack
which has been
distributed to hundreds of schools. The team has also developed a session
engagement. Stars `r' Us! is a key plank of Heriot-Watt University's
public engagement strategy,
during a period which has seen annual applications for undergraduate
places on Chemistry degree
programmes increase from 547 in 2004 to 734 in 2013. There has also been a
in quality of students accepted into our Chemistry courses, demonstrated
by the increase in UCAS
tariff by fifty points over the same period.
4.1 In depth engagement with adults of all socioeconomic groups
The Stars `r' Us! team has actively sought engagement with audiences from
a wide range of
different demographics. With this in mind, we have toured the exhibition
around shopping centres
as part of an RSC programme, and took it to the International Scout
Jamboree. More recently the
exhibition has featured at Our Dynamic Earth (ODE) three times during the
REF period as part of
the Edinburgh International Science Festival (EISF) and once at Cheltenham
Science Festival. A
senior UK academic astronomer states:
"Stars `r' Us! has been a highly effective piece of work with an
enduring life and one that works for
diverse audiences of all ages and backgrounds".
EISF at Our Dynamic Earth Science Centre in 2008, 2009 and 2011
Exhibiting at ODE offers a great opportunity for scientists to engage with
families and independent
adults across the social spectrum (a quarter of ODE's visitors are from
C2DE). For example, in 2009, this included a group of Hibernian football
fans! The SRU team
invites experts to collaborate in the exhibition and programme. Over the
weekend of operation in
ODE in 2011 some 1000 visits were recorded (an average of 330 per day for
the Friday to Sunday
period). Taking this as a realistic average footfall per day at each of
our activities then a total
footfall of 11,000 can be estimated, excluding the additional auditable
earlier figures from the Royal
Society Summer Exhibitions and more recently (see below) at the Cheltenham
The Public Astronomer, from the Royal Observatory Greenwich comments:
"The Stars `r' Us! activity has been an amazingly effective piece of
public engagement and I've
enjoyed helping to present it on a number of occasions. As an astronomer
and a professional
science communicator I've been very impressed by the excellent mix of
interpretation and live demos that comprise Stars `r' Us! This variety
and flexibility has ... allowed it
to engage a huge number of people in a wide range of different venues.
One of its great strengths
has been the way in which it has been used to bring together researchers
from a variety of different
institutes and fields of expertise and it has also proved itself as an
excellent training ground for
students and young researchers, allowing them to hone their creativity
and public engagement
One former SRU helper has gone on to join the staff of the Royal
Observatory Greenwich as an
assistant to the Public Astronomer.
Cheltenham Science Festival 2013 (Area 42 - for over 14s)
Over 900 people visited Stars'r'Us! at Cheltenham Science Festival. The
Festival attracts a broad
social mix with approximately half of visitors coming from socio-economic
group C2DE. SRU
visitors enjoyed in-depth interactions (6-7 minutes on average) with
researchers that led to a wide
range of new learning from specific details on complex theories such as
gravity waves to how
different colours of light relate to the composition of stars.
Visitors reported particular appreciation for being able to talk directly
to researchers and
discovering subjects that would not be covered by mainstream media. They
felt strongly that giving
young people the opportunity to meet researchers informs and influences
their education and
career choices. Having visited SRU, visitors also voiced clear support for
driven research (57% expressed a positive attitude; 30% had no strong
opinion; 13% expressed
support with caveats). The Programme Director, Cheltenham Science
"Cheltenham Science Festival really values the contribution that
exhibitions such as Stars `r' Us!
make to Times Area 42. These exhibitions offer a fantastic opportunity
for visitors to discuss cutting
edge contemporary research with the scientists who are undertaking the
work and are a rare
opportunity for an in-depth exchange of information and views on
everything from fundamental
scientific principles to funding."
4.2 Engagement with schools
Stars `r' Us! has provided information about contemporary science and
science careers to
thousands of young people. In recent years, this has included
participation in HWU's Get SET
widening-participation days. These popular events are an exciting and
stimulating opportunity to
inspire girls to consider study and careers in science and engineering.
McCoustra has also run Stars `r' Us! schools' sessions with over 600
students in Scotland and
northern England. Feedback from teachers shows that these activities have
numerous young people, including many in remote geographical locations, to
perceptions of science and has influenced their educational choices.
- "[Our students] thoroughly enjoyed it and some were more motivated
to go on and study
..[science]... at a higher level" Teacher, James Young High
- "They were more aware of other courses (rather than just physics or
chemistry) to study at
university and not just the same three as at school". Teacher,
Earlston High School
- "We are a small island school. We very much benefit from programmes
speakers can show our students a little of the opportunities that
exist on the mainland."
Teacher, Islay High School
4.3 Engagement with EU policy makers — Astrochemistry — The Cradle of
In 2011, Stars `r' Us! was invited by the European Science Foundation
(ESF) and European
Cooperation in Science to take part in an astrochemistry event organised
for the EU Commission
and Parliament and held at the Natural History Museum in Brussels. EU
politicians and civil
servants attended a reception to raise awareness of astrochemistry at a
"Bringing Stars `r' Us! to an audience of European Commissioners and
the general public helped to
raise the profile of astrochemistry in the EC. I believe that activities
of this kind are an important
contributory factor to the favourable discussions regarding
astrochemistry in the development of
Horizon 2020/Framework Programme 8." Chair of European Science
In February 2013, The European Commission Consultation On Possible Topics
Activities For Integrating And Opening Existing National Research
Infrastructures Report cited
(page 24) European Laboratory Astrophysics as a topic with high potential
and with merit for future
Horizon 2020 actions for integrating and opening existing national
Sources to corroborate the impact
 A senior Astronomer within the UK will state Stars `r' Us! has been a
highly effective piece of
work with an enduring life and one that works for diverse audiences of all
ages and backgrounds
 The Marketing Manager from Our Dynamic Earth for numbers of visitors
and their perception of
the impact of SRU when it ran at the Edinburgh International Science
 Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich can confirm
the effectiveness of the
approach in SRU, and its impact on participants
 Chair, European Science Foundation, on the impact of the event in
Brussels in 2011.
 Final Report to PPARC PP/B5Q1017/1.
 Final Reports to EPSRC EP/E022081/1, EP/E022413/1 and EP/E022693/1.
 Evaluation of Stars `r' Us! at the 2013 Cheltenham Science Festival,
Graphic Science Ltd 2013