After the recent retirement of lead lecturer Herbert Schwartz, Drake University physics professor Herb Folsom began lectures at the Drake Municipal Observatory – upholding a decades-long tradition of lectures open to both students and the general public.
Attendees do not need prior knowledge of astronomy or to have attended previous weekly lectures to understand the material. They will not only have the chance to learn about science, but also the opportunity to gaze through telescopes on the lawn and access a museum full of interesting astrological instruments.
“I would recommend the lectures to everyone,” Ankeny resident Marika Kisgen said of her experience at the observatory. “It was a great way to learn something new but without the commitment or stress of a college course. And even if you’re not interested in physics or astronomy, the content is so versatile it relates to everyone’s life in some way.”
Schwartz recently retired from the position after delivering the presentations for four decades on topics ranging from water in the solar system to the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – including virtual presentations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting this fall, Folsom will take over the lectures. Schwartz, who supported Folsom taking up the post, said he believes Folsom will have a legacy at the observatory similar to his and has high hopes for Folsom’s lectures. The pair enjoy jokes about having the same name.
“I knew I wanted Herb, for a number of reasons,” Schwartz said. “He’s really interested in the foibles of astronomy.”
Folsom began this fall’s series with constellations, the first way people found their way around the sky. The rest of the topics can be found on the observatory’s website. During the lectures, telescopes will be on the lawn and interested viewers can look at the constellations up close.
He also plans to open the bottom floor to the public as a museum, where they can learn about different astronomical tools. The museum will increase its collection over time, Folsom said.
“We want to get the public more involved because there’s usually a full house that come to these public nights,” Folsom said. “One thing I want to do this time is to have a suggestion box or some way of the people saying what they’d like to talk about, and in later lectures some way to work those in.”
One of the observatory’s primary goals upon its founding in 1921 was to instill a love of astronomy in Des Moines’ citizens. Normally, 2,000-3,000 interested members of the community come to the observatory every year, and despite the pandemic, attendance has rebounded to normal numbers.
Both Schwartz and Folsom were in agreement that the observatory is the best outreach program that Drake has and said they would like more public involvement from both students and the community.
In terms of outreach, the observatory’s presence on social media has been growing thanks to former student Julie LaFranzo, who now serves as the facilitator for outreach and communications at the observatory. Their Instagram (@drakeobservatory) and Facebook (Drake Municipal Observatory) accounts share details about events and news related to the sky.
LaFranzo said that the observatory aims to increase their outreach to younger kids, including a new program at the Boys and Girls club designed to foster a love of astronomy.
“The plan for the Boys and Girls Club is to work with younger teenagers and do telescope workshops, eventually teaching how to build them,” LaFranzo said. Eventually, the program will attempt to extend to other ages.
Classes at Drake, such as the astronomy lab, have also used the observatory to view the stars. However, the large century-old telescope is unable to be used, as the dome is out of order. The observatory is currently trying to raise money to repair it and other parts of the facility.
Folsom also plans to eventually extend the hours that the observatory is open to the public more than once a week.
Each lecture will take place Fridays at 8 p.m. at the Drake Observatory. Interested students can get to the lectures by following directions to 4898 Observatory Road on Waveside Golf Course, which is located behind the tennis course, and park in the small lot near the building. The route 3 DART bus drops students relatively close to the observatory, only a short walk to the golf course.