Meet Katy Haugland '09: Vice president of The Sidewalk Astronomers

By Charlie White

Be it knitting, fixing cars, or drinking heavily and watching reruns of Dallas, we all have our hobbies. Katy Haugland ’09 happens to spend her free time building telescopes and spreading the joy of stars and sunspots to schools, libraries, and sketchy street corners in Los Angeles.

Haugland, who grew up and continues to live in Los Angeles when she isn’t at Macalester, had her first astronomical experience in the second grade when her teacher made the mistake of informing her class that Mercury was a smaller planet than Pluto. Befuddled, Haugland’s little mind decided to research the truth, and of course ended up proving her teacher wrong. This triumph was just the beginning of her interest in astronomy.

“When I was in sixth grade, my mother was working in environmental education,” said Haugland. “She introduced me to John Dobson, the founder of the club that I am currently the vice president of.”

The club is the Sidewalk Astronomers, a group based in California whose ideas are based on sharing the knowledge of astronomy with anybody who will listen. Not only do they share their telescopes with students and library or national park patrons, but they even go so far as to set up their telescopes on random street corners in Los Angeles. “I’ve actually almost been shot twice doing that,” she said.

Most of Haugland’s inspiration for her astronomy came from John Dobson, she said. “He basically just told me that I was going to do this,” she said. “He was like, you’re going to build some telescopes, and you’re going to do public service with them.”

Although she is currently the vice president of the Sidewalk Astronomers, she claims that it doesn’t really mean very much. “Nobody really ever does anything. We don’t even have meetings… part of the reason we don’t have many members is because everyone seems to be all about meeting and talking about stuff,” she said. “And the problem with that is we don’t really like each other that much, so talking doesn’t usually get us anywhere.”

However, when they’re not busy doing nothing, the Sidewalk Astronomers run workshops in schools to teach kids about astronomy and how to build their own telescopes. “I started building my first telescope when I was 11, and I finished it on my 12th birthday,” Haugland said. “I currently only have two telescopes [a 10″ diameter instrument and a 5″ diameter sunscope] to my name that I’ve built… I’ve helped with a lot more though, they are usually donated to workshops or something.”

Building a telescope involves building a wooden stand for the scope itself, as well as grinding mirrors. “It took me about 30 hours to grind my 10 inch mirror,” she said. Haugland explained that grinding mirrors requires a lot of upper body strength, a lot of glass, some sandpaper, and a tree sap-like substance for polishing. With team work, however, building a telescope is no problem. “When we work together and assign different jobs, it just takes about a day to build a telescope,” she explained.

In April, Haugland plans to be actually conducting a workshop for the first time at the Eisenhower Observatory. “I don’t even know where that is,” she laughed. She’s also not even sure how she ended up getting stuck with this responsibility. “I guess someone told someone else that I grind mirrors, and then someone else I don’t know asked me to do it.”

Even though she jokes about how she hates all the work she gives herself, in the end, she’s glad she’s doing it. “I really like going out and doing things a lot, I just don’t like sitting around and planning them,” she said.

Haugland is also involved in Macalester rugby and is currently trying to raise some money to get new jerseys for next year by working as a security guard for March Madness. “My life is pretty ridiculous,” she said with a smile.

Haugland is currently working on expanding the Minnesota Astronomical Society, and in the long term, she is looking to run the Sidewalk Astronomers. “We want to make it into less of a club, and more like a foundation that other astronomical clubs can join,” she said. Haugland is also considering a career in public service astronomy.

There are still openings in Haugland’s workshops on April 22nd and 29th for those interested. Contact Katy Haugland at [email protected] for information.