How Michigan Astro Alumna Shannon Murphy Developed the Skills She Uses to Engage Students and the Public in Astronomy
Everyone at Michigan Astro knows Shannon Murphy.
If you’ve ever taken an astronomy lab, built an instructional website, laid hands on the Angell Hall telescope, trained in the planetarium, or attended an outreach event, chances are you’ve met her.
But few know her story. That’s because the department’s social media maven and backbone of public outreach is a decidedly private person. She’s most content behind the scenes, letting astronomy and astronomy students be, well, the stars.
So it might come as a surprise even to those who know her best that the department’s resident equipment guru found her undergraduate instrumentation class “torture” and thought she’d put her stamp on the field as a theorist.
Her career goes to show that when someone follows a passion and takes every opportunity to gain new skills, the threads of experience can come together in surprising, rewarding ways.
Her Path to Michigan Astro: The First Time
The seeds of Murphy’s passion were planted early, as far back as the 1800s. “My great-grandfather was a navigator in the 19th century,” she says. “So when he homesteaded in northern Michigan, he built his house aligned with the celestial navigation markers. My earliest memories are sitting on the porch with my dad and grandfather, learning about the stars.”
Murphy showed an interest, which her parents were keen to nurture. They got her the Astroscan telescope she still travels with today and a subscription to Odyssey magazine. This is where she learned astronomy could be a career. By 14, she’d declared her intention to get a PhD and become a professor. Her scientist-father and grandfather were thrilled; her grandmother, less so. “She kept thinking I’d be going up in the space shuttle – so she was afraid,” she chuckles.
The Astroscan telescope that Murphy received from her parents and still uses at Michigan Astro outreach events today. Credit: Joseph Velez.
Murphy loaded up on chemistry and physics in high school then enrolled at U-M. Here she researched dying stars with Professors Mario Mateo and Charles Cowley and did a paper on irregular galaxies for a class with Dick Teske. It was the latter that captured her imagination. She found herself drawn to “the big questions of galaxy formation” and assumed this would be her focus in graduate school.
In the meantime, she walked into the first of several well-timed opportunities that would inform her future career.
“About midway through my degree, a group of us discovered there were internships and research opportunities we weren’t learning about until after the deadlines,” says Murphy. “So, under fellow student Sarah Winfry’s leadership, we started the Student Astronomical Society (SAS) to share this information.”
Originally conceived as a peer-guidance resource for astrophysics majors, SAS evolved to include public outreach toward the end of Murphy’s program, thanks to a serendipitous renovation of Angell Hall. “The department installed a new telescope, and SAS started doing open houses,” she says. “I was able to be involved in a few before I graduated.”
Murphy (left) in the dome of Angell Hall with current SAS members. One of the group’s founding members, she now provides resources and continuity to this student-run organization. Credit: Joseph Velez.
Graduate School and the Path Back
As she prepared to apply for graduate school, Murphy felt she needed to deepen some skills. So she enrolled in a master’s program in physics at Eastern Michigan University. Though the content was what she was seeking, it was her “side work” that would most directly shape her future.
Since the courseload was all physics, Murphy sought activities that would keep her tied to astronomy. One was the university’s astronomy club. It was here that she befriended Norbert Vance, who runs Eastern’s observatory, and his friend Bob Justin. Together they taught her telescope care, and she was surprised to discover how much she enjoyed it.
Murphy also scored a small consulting job on the renovation of the McLaughlin Planetarium in St. Louis. She researched planetarium and dome manufacturers, and ways to arrange the equipment.
At the same time, she got her very first taste of teaching. “Eastern was my first chance to get in front of a class, to grade, and to use the labs,” she says. As her she finished her courses and progressed with her thesis, she soon realized she was enjoying her side projects more than her primary one.
“I was struggling with the code for my thesis,” she says. “Yet, I was having a great time playing with the lab equipment – figuring out what students could do wrong and how to keep them on the right road. That was a lot more fun than code that wouldn’t compile.”
It was about then that an opportunity arose to further test her abilities in front of a class. She was still writing her thesis when she secured an adjunct instructor’s job at Lansing Community College.
While she says she wasn’t entirely a “natural,” she learned a lot during this time. She read Paul Green’s book on physics education and began thinking about how to engage students in each other’s success.
She also attended a Michigan Science Teachers Association conference and was thrilled to find a session on outreach programming from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The speaker had all sorts of resources, materials, and classroom activities to help volunteers serve as ‘ambassadors’ for its missions,” she says. She returned home and applied immediately to become a Solar System Ambassador, a position that still serves her well today.
After a few years at Washtenaw Community College, Murphy heard U-M was hiring. She emailed then-Chair Doug Richstone and was welcomed back to where it all began.
Her Role Evolves
Though brought on as a lab instructor, Murphy quickly found ways to exploit her varied experiences. So she did, expanding her role bit by bit until she’d become the department’s point person for its instructional materials, facilities, and outreach.
“It began by just thinking about ways to make the labs more fun,” she says. “We thought maybe we could use the planetarium to teach more than constellations. I’d tinkered with it, but it was old and a pretty bad design. You had to plug each planet into a specific position – and some didn’t stay put. So I’d get it all set up for an instructor only to get a call that Mercury fell off again.”
As luck would have it, the department received funding to upgrade the planetarium, and Murphy saw a chance to contribute. She joined the planning meetings, using her background to report on planetarium manufacturers that could make equipment to fit Angell Hall’s dome.
During this time, Murphy had been tinkering with the telescopes, too – even enlisting her old buddies at Eastern to teach her to disassemble and reassemble them.
Clear that she was fast becoming a resident expert on these tools, the department named her a “classroom demonstrator” and put her in charge of maintaining the equipment and training students to use it.
She still does this for classes and outreach, equipping student-volunteers to run viewing nights and planetarium shows in Angell Hall. She also develops activities and uses her role as a Solar System Ambassador to secure high-quality materials.
Murphy says the transit of Venus was one of her favorite outreach events because of its rarity and the scale of public interest. Visitors could view it both from Angell Hall's rooftop telescopes and in the auditorium through a telescope feed. Credit: Martin Vloet.
“I think one of my biggest roles is making sure volunteers have the resources and information to make outreach easy,” she says. “We want them to be able to grab stuff and walk in, and not to have to spend hours preparing.”
Still a member of SAS, Murphy provides the kind of continuity that is essential for a student-run organization. She supports their efforts to engage the public and leads a few special events herself each year.
In addition to supporting SAS outreach, Murphy coordinates viewing nights for the Detroit Observatory and operates its antique telescope. Credit (left photo): Shannon Murphy.
When asked about her favorite outreach success stories, she cites the transit of Venus, where she was able to meet massive audience demand by arranging a feed from the rooftop telescope to the Angell Hall auditorium. She also reflects proudly on a quick mobilization for Mars’ closest approach. “It was an unscheduled event where we were reacting to a surge of media interest,” she says. “So a group of us decided to open the observatory for a couple of hours. SAS put it on the website, but that was it. We had so many people, they were waiting for three hours to look through the telescope! When we closed at 3:00 a.m., people were still coming up and asking to look.”
This is for Murphy what all the preparation was about. “In some ways the thing I’m most proud of is that we get more outreach requests than we can fill,” she says. “It means people are really becoming interested in what we do.”
For more information on Michigan Astronomy’s public outreach program, please see our website’s Events & Outreach section. It features the open houses run by SAS in the Angell Hall Observatory and Planetarium; viewing nights in the historic Detroit Observatory; and custom events and traveling shows.