SOEST Open House 2015

Started in 1991 (I think) and held every two years, SOEST Open House is a massive science outreach event. Over the course of two days, we showcase science to more than 4,000 people, most of them grade-school students.

This is my first Open House, and I helped out at the Colors of Space exhibit. Our puny human eyes only view a narrow band of light (~380 nm to 700 nm) compared to possible spectra. We’ve developed instruments to artificially extend our vision beyond human shortcomings.


At the Colors of Space exhibit, we had two thermal infrared cameras, a near infrared spectrometer, and a couple of microscopes with lunar samples. One thermal camera was pointed down the hall to grab the attention of visitors.

Our thermal cameras monitored the 10 micron wavelength. One use of thermal cameras is to locate rocky regions on other planets. Large rocks have higher thermal inertia, so rocky regions remain warmer longer than smooth surfaces. We also use near infrared spectrometer to discern between similar-appearing things. Our demo used common cooking materials, like flour vs cornstarch, and sugar vs salt.

And of course, visible light is still an important part of research. We had Apollo samples on display under a binocular microscope, and a thin section of olivine basalt 12008 (from the Apollo 12 mission) in a petrographic microscope. This is where I posted up. I would have them look at the thin section in normal light, and then put in the cross-polarization filter to show how we use light properties to identify minerals.

The change caused a lot of eyes to widen in amazement. “It looks like a church”, one kid said. Other exclamations included “kaleidoscope!” and “a bunch of dead butterflies”. Kids are weird.

To cap it off, we had an infrared photobooth with some sweet plastic props. The cold plastic props, transparent to our eyes, were opaque at the 10 micron wavelength the infrared camera monitored. Note that you can’t really see the props in the below video until it pans over to the IR screen.

Visitors of all ages were able to take home a printout of their thermal image with some of the science behind it shoehorned in. Everyone loves a keepsake!

Leading up to this year’s open house, I had tried finding some details from past years. There were surprisingly few photos or details posted, and I realized there wasn’t much documentation of events happening. I had originally planned to set up a twitter account to tweet photos from our photobooth. That idea began to grow. Why not use it to share all aspects of open house? But how? I was going to be rooted to the Colors of Space exhibit all day. How could I find out who would be tweeting within the department? Instead of me searching for them, why not let them come to me? I sent out an email with the password to the account to the department mailing list. Unfortunately, the only people that took me up on it were also at my table, so it didn’t expand our feed as much as I had hoped. But I also teamed up with volcanology prof/chair Ken Rubin, which gave us a little more variety.

All in all, it was worth a shot, and we had a bit of engagement from the UH Manoa twitter accounts and some visitors. I think next open house, it would help to get the word out earlier, and have an option for people to send photos without having to be familiar with twitter.