An interview with Dr Jenny Shipway

Jenny Shipway

Jenny was first hooked into astronomy education while working in a small, travelling planetarium. Following further roles in science centres and outreach, in 2007 she won her dream job: manager of a brand new, 17-metre planetarium at the Winchester Science Centre. Ten years and nearly one million planetarium visitors later, she was responsible for all of the Science Centre’s educational aspects. During this time, she also served as president of the British Association of Planetaria and as the International Planetarium Society’s UK/Ireland representative.

Today, Jenny is an educational consultant, enjoying a varied mix of work including scriptwriting and consultancy for some of the world’s leading planetarium film producers. She is the International Astronomical Union’s national outreach coordinator for the UK, and co-chair of the International Planetarium Society Education Committee.

Here she shares her thoughts about AstroBoost, a project she initiated to support UK amateur astronomical societies.


Jenny, can you give us an idea of what AstroBoost is?

AstroBoost is a hub providing free support for amateur astronomical societies’ outreach activities.

Societies visiting the website will find links to hands-on activities, funding, supportive organisations, and training. Every resource has been hand-picked to be both high quality and appropriate for astronomical society use. AstroBoost also partners with organisations including the Royal Astronomical Society to run special projects providing societies with outreach equipment and training.

In a nutshell, AstroBoost aims to make it easier for societies to reach their outreach aspirations.


People gathered around a table of astronomy activities
The AstroBoost training day at Clanfield Observatory, home of the Hampshire Astronomical Group.


What made you first think of this initiative?

For 10 years, I ran twice-yearly, free Beginners’ Stargazing Nights. We would dim and redden the lights before welcoming hundreds of visitors into the Science Centre. These magical events would never have been possible without the support of astronomical societies, several of which brought their telescopes, displays, and experience to share with the public.

Getting to know society members over the years, I came to admire their knowledge and passion for science communication, but also to appreciate the limitations they faced in terms of people-time and resources. When I left the Science Centre I wanted to continue working with the societies, and to give something back. Also, I just enjoyed their company!


What were the main stages of the project?

AstroBoost kicked off as a project with the Royal Astronomical Society. We got a Spark Award from STFC to fund a pilot project to explore whether this was a good idea.

First, I surveyed societies across the South. I found that nearly all were outreach-active, and most wanted to do more. They told me about their aspirations and barriers, which was really interesting; the full report is available from the AstroBoost website.

Next, I developed a package of training and resources on the theme of the James Webb Space Telescope. This part of the project was carried out in partnership with Hampshire Astronomy Group, Guildford Astronomical Society, Newbury Astronomical Society, and the UK Webb Campaign. The societies requested a talk with hands-on activities, suitable for groups of children aged 8–12 years but adaptable for other audiences.

A ring of volunteers hold aloft the flat, hexagonal, golden, shiny segments that together recreate the mirror of the Webb telescope
Volunteers at the AstroBoost training day, hosted by the Hampshire Astronomical Group at Clanfield Observatory, assembling the gold Webb mirror. (Hampshire Astronomical Group)


An outreach training day was held at Hampshire Astronomy Group’s Clanfield Observatory, where each society received boxes of equipment including an infrared camera, 3-D-printed Webb model, and giant Webb-mirror jigsaw. Societies were then free to use these resources however they thought best.

This pilot project went so well that the UK Webb Campaign funded an extension project involving a further nine societies from across the UK. Together, these projects showed that providing astronomy societies with kits and training both helps the societies and provides a cost-effective way for funders to get their science messages out to the public.


How have you evaluated the impact you have made?

The societies collected simple evaluation data, and I went along to some events to observe how the kit was used and to talk to the presenters and participants. It was great to see how the societies had adapted the resources to their own needs.

Some of my favourite quotes from the project:

‘I loved it, thank you so much! I am learning about space in school so it’s really helped me.’ (Cub)

‘I enjoyed it because it wasn’t a boring talk, we were showed things.’ (12–14yr participant)

‘Even us adults were interested in listening and learning.’ (Adult leader)

‘It was very interesting, great talk, activities and games all in a way we can understand.’ (Adult leader)

‘The Rotary club liked the Lego!’ (Adult participant)


It is clear that this project, along with your other initiatives, has made a real contribution to outreach work. What is your philosophy about education in general?

Education is such a complex thing. I have learned it really helps to know what you are trying to achieve from your activity so you can think about the best methods to focus your efforts. Maybe you are trying to give children a positive opinion of science. Or how to find north using the stars. Maybe you want them to protect dark skies, or to learn the structure of the solar system. These are very different types of learning goal! Too often we as science communicators try to do everything at once – we need to make it easier for ourselves.

One thing I do know is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Having a diverse mix of people communicating science is really important. We need loud people and quiet people, funny people and serious people, and people from different educational and cultural backgrounds. This is because we are communicating to a diverse mix of learners, but also because everyone benefits from hearing the same information repeated in different ways in different environments.


What are your future plans?

I am currently recruiting societies for AstroBoost: Engineer, for which I will be putting in a funding proposal later this year. I am looking for societies who have at least two trained engineers in their outreach team, who are interested in delivering activities in schools.

I would also love it if any of your readers could send me information about, or links to, outreach activities or resources that they have personally used and found useful. These can then be added to the AstroBoost website to share with other societies.

Otherwise, I am always open to ideas! AstroBoost is led by astronomical societies’ needs, so let me know if there is something else we could be doing to help.


AstroBoost resources and links are featured alongside other outreach information on the BAA website here. Jenny’s own professional website is

The British Astronomical Association supports amateur astronomers around the UK and the rest of the world. Find out more about the BAA or join us.