Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mega-upates from some busy weeks

A week from now I'll set off from Chile and move on to the next stage of my project in Nepal. Until then, I'm keeping busy with a lot of school visits and trips. This is a picture of my schedule for the last two weeks in Chile:
Since coming back from the holiday in San Pedro, it's been a whirlwind of activity, but it feels great to be doing my project everyday and also making time for adventures.

Basic summary of what I've been up to:
  1. Weekly trips to Escuela G130 in Baquedano, a town about an hour outside of Antofagasta. The school in Baquedano has an academy of astronomy, which basically functions as an after-school program for 12 students in grades 6-8. The school has its own observatory with two small telescopes. Every week, the students have an hour of lecture, a snack break, and then an hour of time with the telescope. The academy is led by astronomy professor Eduardo Unda-Sanzana, who works here in Antofagasta. Since arriving last month, he's the person I've been working with primarily. He's not only invited me to join the weekly academy, but I've also been helping plan and lead the lessons, as well as having short interviews with groups of students during the snack break. It's been terrific to see the same students every week and get the chance to talk with them individually about what they know and like about astronomy.
    Most of the Baquedano group, missing some students and Prof. Unda
    The Baquedano Observatory
    Interviewing students at once (snack/teatime)

    Students learning to use SalsaJ, a kid-friendly equivilent of DS9 for processing images. Students will use the observatory to take CCD photos of the moon and then use this program for post-processing. 

  1.  English/Astro lessons at Colegio Andres Sabella (public school) with students in grades 8 and 9 (about 12-15 years old). Since I was a guest in an English class, my presentation was a basic overview of astronomy, with an emphasis on the English words for astronomy-related things -- Universe, Galaxy, black hole, the names of the planets, etc. But through my lesson I also asked a lot of questions about what they knew to gauge what they had learned before. Generally, their levels of understanding were fairly high. They all knew the basics, like the names of the planets and how things in our solar system work (although a remarkable number thought that Neptune was the smallest planet). Some students also knew about more things, like the Big Bang, supernovae, or black holes. Some students had visited professional observatories, and most knew that Chile had excellent skies for studying astronomy.
    Lessons at Andres Sabella
    3. A chat with the astronomy club from The Giant School of Antofagasta (semi-private). This club was created several years ago by one very passionate and dedicated teacher, Raul Muñoz. Now, his students are each doing their own research projects ranging in topics from sun spots to light pollution to indigenous astronomy practices in Northern Chile. Several of his students competed in the National Astronomy Olympiad, and one even got third place last year. His students have also traveled to the International Astronomy Congress in Paraguay last year and may be traveling to Dubai in the future.

    These kids were AWESOME. They were 14-17 years old, so we had a more “grown-up” conversation about what they liked about astronomy, why they joined the club, what it was like to participate in the Astronomy Olympiad, and so on. We also talked about how to pursue a career in astronomy in Chile and how they felt about the many foreigners working at Observatories. One student said, and the others agreed, that they were glad the foreigners were running the observatories because, “Otherwise no one would know how to use the telescopes.” This is unfortunately a popular belief here among some students (and also some adults). Some (CHILEAN PEOPLE!) have said to me that Chileans are naturally “afraid of math and science.” To which, of course, my Chilean astronomer and physicist friends have rolled their eyes sufficiently. This notion of Europeans and Americans using the natural resource of the night skies through observatories is what brought me to Chile to begin with. It was interesting to hear the students' perspectives, but I didn't know how to respond to them. They're extremely talented and passionate students, and it seems odd that they'd have an opinion that they were naturally less able to lead major scientific projects than people from other countries.

    4. Giving various class lectures in the Antofagasta International School (private). It's been a gift to speak in English with students instead of bumbling through Spanish or Spanglish or having a translator. I gave a talk about “The Future of Space Exploration” to students in grades 6, 7, 9, 10 and 12, including videos about the Curiosity and Juno missions. Yesterday I also did a constellation lesson with three classes of fifth graders. The activity included an overview of Inca, Mayan and Aztec astronomy practices, since that's what they're learning about in school, and then an activity where they looked at a picture of the night sky and made their own constellations. My main point was that this process is similar to what its like to be a scientist – everyone brings their own perspective to the same problem, and everyone's perspectives are influenced by their daily lives and previous experiences.
The fifth graders were so funny and very enthusiastic. Many even asked for my autograph after class. (I tried to explain that I wasn't famous, but they didn't seem to care. Very flattering.) The students have been generally wonderful and they all have a great grasp of astronomy already. I'm learning to gauge what they know by the questions they ask, and here are some examples: “How far away can telescopes see?” “Where could we live if we needed to leave Earth?” And my personal favorite – “Is it true that one day, the Sun will go KABLOOM?” 

With a few of the big kids at AIS after my talk "The Future of Space Exploration"
  1. Attending local astronomy events for National Science Week. Technically, the theme of the week was Neuroscience, but there was also an exhibit of astronomy images and a series of astronomy-related talks. There was one talk and performance by a dancer who collaborated with an astronomer to create a dance based on the motions of the Universe. It was perhaps a bit raunchy, but I liked the glittery costumes and the general concept of fusing art and science. There were also two musicians who played really incredible electronic music inspired by images of outer space.
    Nebulae? Supernovae? Galaxy mergers?
    Astro dancers
    AwESOme Universe gallery (for ESO's 50th anniversary)
    Electronic music inspired by astronomy images

     6. Traveling! Last week, I took a quick, solo weekend trip to Iquique, a city about 6 hours north of Antofagasta. Iquique is known for its beaches (beautiful), its hitorical district (adorable), and its tax free shopping zone (overwhelming, and not for me, but interesting to see). It's also known for its consistent winds, making it a great place to fulfill my dream paragliding. So much fun, and so beautiful.
    Watching sun-bathing sea lions at the port
    Main Plaza of Iquique

     Paragliding! Living a dream

Summary of what's left:
  1. More school visits. Two more lectures at the International School, and one more English/astro lesson at a public school across town.
  2. Trip to Paranal (the VLT: Very Large Telescope) with the Baquedano kids this Saturday
  3. Noche Zero, an international, interdisciplinary conference about light pollution. I'm helping an education and outreach team working at the conference next Monday-Wednesday, which is allowing me to participate without paying the pricey registration fee. I'm super excited and very grateful to have this opportunity. And, if anyone saw “The City Dark” at Haverford last year, Director Ian Chaney will also be in attendance. So if you have questions or comments for him, let me know!
It's been busy, and it's going to stay busy until I step onto the plane, but I feel so grateful to be doing my project and accomplishing what I came here to do.

Thanks for bearing with me through this long and hectic post! If you made it here – congratulations. You deserve a prize (might I suggest one of my many posters, stickers, and tokens from observatory visits?) Goal: write more often. And, as always, comments are always welcome and greatly appreciated.


  1. Holy crap so much stuff! I'm glad you're having fun out there, and I can't believe this is only a small fraction of everything you're going to do!

    Enjoying living vicariously through your pictures. Paragliding? Seriously? Phew!

    have fun ;)

  2. What a blast, Maya! Your enthusiasm for your project is contagious. I'm so very proud of you, Honey!

  3. i think this is my favorite blog post yet, which is saying something. so glad that you've been busy & are accomplishing so many project goals! your presentations sound awesome. also, your insight about chileans believing they're not as qualified to be scientists is super interesting (and troubling). i'm really curious to hear more about the successes (and failures) of education projects in different contexts, as you move on to new places.

    also. PARAGLIDING!!! so jealous. you are a bamf.

    GAME TIME! noche zero sounds fantastic. enjoy your last few days!

    love, maddie