The University of Wisconsin’s astronomy department knocks stargazing out of the park with its state park outreach program.

Universe in the Park combines the summer camping experience with an educational opportunity by providing community members the chance to view the night sky in more than 30 Wisconsin state parks.

The program allows people to visit state parks to hear various presentations dealing with astronomy and look through university telescopes, beginning again in May.

Students in the astronomy department run sessions throughout the summer where they present current news in astronomy and new research to campers, visitors and rangers who sign up for the program. Audiences also get the opportunity to look through university telescopes at the night sky, weather permitting, Kay Kriewald, UW Space Place senior outreach specialist, said.

The program started in 1995 when a group of post-doctorate students from the astronomy department decided to combine their passion for astronomy and state parks, Eric Wilcots, professor in the department of astronomy, said.

“The program is a great way for graduate students to connect with the state,” Wilcots said.

Since the start, Universe in the Park has grown to 40 sessions over the summer in 30 different Wisconsin state parks, Wilcots said. People of all ages can look through telescopes and see wonders of the night sky, including ring nebulas, planets, stars of different colors and the moon, depending on the night, he said.

Touring the entire state of Wisconsin, Universe in the Park combines the camping experience with an educational opportunity involving astronomy, Kriewald said. Students, campers, rangers and faculty all benefit from the unique experience UW has to offer the parks, she said.

The astronomy department uses the outreach program to introduce people to astronomy and what the department at UW does, Wilcots said. Universe in the Park gives individuals a forum to ask questions about astronomy, he said.

“We are training a new generation of scientists who need practice communicating science to the general public and this is a great way to do that,” Wilcots said.

UW was the first university to begin an outreach program involving astronomy in state parks, and have since inspired other universities such as the University of Minnesota and the University Washington to replicate the idea, Wilcots said.

Graduate students and faculty both use the sessions to share their unique passions about astronomy with the public and answer questions, Kriewald said.

Visitors get to experience a presentation about a wide variety of interesting topics in the astronomy fields, Wilcots said.

“Ultimately it’s about science literacy and communicating science to the general public,” Wilcots said.