Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Children! Astronomy! THE PROJECT BEGINS!!

*THE PROJECT* is now finally underway! I've spent the past two days working with kids in schools, and it seems like I'll be doing kid-related/project-related activities every weekday for the rest of my two weeks in La Serena. I'm working with the Education and Public Outreach (EPO) team from the Cerro Tololo observatory, and their calender is constantly packed with trips to schools, school visits to their education center, and visits to the Tololo observatory itself. The team consists of Juan Seguel, EPO coordinator, Leonor Opazo, program director, and Daniel Munizaga, Scientific Assistant and Technical Support.

Monday Juan, Daniel and I drove 3 hours south to a school in the small rural town of Quilimari. The school is only kindergarten through 8th grade, and after that, students must commute to other towns for high school. Juan gave a talk about the new observatory projects happening in the Coquimbo region (LSST, DECAM, etc) to a group of 24 students, grades 4-8. It was interesting that this particular talk was focused more on technology. The kids thought it was amazing how many megapixels the CCD of the LSST will have compared to cameras on their cell phones. One of my main questions while I'm here in Chile is how these major scientific projects in Chile affect children's ideas about astronomy. I guess this is one answer.

After the talk, Juan asked for questions and nearly every hand shot up. They asked a wide range of questions from the cause of the Big Bang to the reason the sun is orange at sunset. Juan then invited me up to speak a little more informally with the kids. We talked about what stars they could see from their houses at night (they all said they could see the Milky Way), what their favorite things were in astronomy, and if they wanted to be scientists when they grew up (they all said yes). This group of 24 students was chosen based on previous interest in science, but still, it was incredible how engaged and excited they were.

Students practicing the Cueca, the national dance, for the Chilean independence celebration on September 18
Yesterday we went to the Saint Mary School of La Serena, a private Catholic school with only 30 students in each grade. They're having a whole "Week of Astronomy" and we're doing activities with them everyday. Yesterday Daniel held planetarium shows for grades 1-4 and their parents with their mobile Starlab planetarium. I didn't get to see the planetarium show myself (30 kids + 15 or so parents + the teacher + Daniel = a very full planetarium), but everyone really seemed to enjoy it.
Inflated Starlab mobile planetarium
First the kids get in...
... then the parents.
While the kids were in the planetarium, I was shown around the school and introduced to several classes. Everyone was so welcoming and excited to talk with me and hear more about my project. They even had groups of students come to the library throughout the day so I could talk with them about astronomy. With the help of an English-speaking teacher, I was able to talk with groups of first graders, second graders, fifth graders and ninth graders. They told me their ideas about astronomy, and also asked me a lot of questions.

It's amazing to finally be doing the project that I've envisioned for so long. I feel so grateful that I've found an outreach group that has been so welcoming and have had the chance to go to schools that are excited to have me speak with their students.

In other news, I'm liking the La Serena/Coquimbo area more and more every day. I'm making friends (mostly through the Couch Surfing network) and have been exploring the area a little more. My Spanish improves daily with practice, and I only hope that I can continue to improve during my remaining 7 weeks in Chile!


  1. Glad you have had such a fulfilling start to your Watson the updates.

  2. How exciting to discover that these children are already so enthusiastic about Science, and Astronomy in particular. Wonderful that your vision for your project is coming together so beautifully, and so quickly. All this in only three weeks since your departure!