Launching bottle rockets, making comets, peering through telescopes and a 3D tour of mars. These were just some of the activities and exhibits at the annual open house for the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Institute for Astronomy (IfA). Organizers say the free community event, held every April, has two goals.

“One is to let the community know that UH has this incredible astronomy institute right here in everyone’s backyard,” said Roy Gal, the IfA outreach coordinator. “And the other is to get kids interested in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—and show them, it’s not just equations and boring but actually a lot of fun and a lot of cool things going on.”

The more than two-dozen exhibits and activities are designed to give kids of all ages, and adults, a hands-on experience in astronomy.

“So we were putting air into the bottles with water to make it like explode,” said elementary school student Luke Higashi, who came with his parents.

“We’re going to make our own comets, like snowball, with dirt and sand over it,” said younger brother Troy.

The open house, which averages about 1,300 people a year, gives UH educators and students a chance to share their knowledge and passion for astronomy and science.

The Fun with Physics activity demonstrated angular momentum. UH physics undergraduate student Anthony Sarria explains.

“It does everything from making sure that your bike stays up while you are riding it all the way to making sure the galaxy keeps its shape,” said Sarria.

There are also talks and presentations by faculty and researchers, who are among the best in their fields; along with movies, stargazing and the exhibits and activities. All presented in a way that makes learning about astronomy fun.

“Everything from the theory, to the experts, to the practice, you get the whole experience,” said Sarria.

And you get this experience from an internationally recognized department. UH’s Institute for Astronomy is the largest, university astronomy department in the country that brings in an average of 20 million dollars a year in research funds from outside the state. It attracts the top minds in the field, performing an amazingly wide variety of research, thanks to UH’s access to all of the telescopes on Haleakalā and Mauna Kea.

“We have hundreds of kids go through our intro to astronomy classes that get to use our telescopes here,” said Gal. “And produce great PhD students going on to some of the best careers in astronomy out there.”

Chances are, you will find some of those future PhD candidates at the Institute for Astronomy Open House, each year.