Sunday, November 4, 2012

Quarterly Report 1

Last week marked the end of the first quarter of my Watson year. I can't believe how fast its going! Every three months, we Watson Fellows write a quarterly reports to HQ that should be like a "long letters home" describing what we've been up to, how we're feeling and what's up next. Here's a copy of the one I submitted...

Hello Watson Headquarters!

As I write from this busy Kathmandu internet cafe, filled with the sounds of many different languages all calling home to tell their own stories, I feel so far from the beginning of my Watson year. Exactly three months ago, on August 1, I set out for this grand adventure, in hopes of learning how children around the world think about astronomy -- our sun, the moon, the stars, and our Universe.

As I made my way to Santiago, my year a complete blank slate, I was unsure if I was ready, if my project was worthy or if I could make my years of planning and wishing turn into my daily life. My two and a half months in Chile were filled with uncertainty and doubt, intermingled with moments of accomplishment, joy and extreme beauty. All things to be expected from this whole year, I suppose.

My project’s destinations are places where I consider either astronomy and/or childhood to be particularly interesting. I decided to go to Chile as it is often considered to be the astronomy capital of the world, or, at least the observatory capital of the world. Northern Chile is home to over a dozen professional observatories due to their pristine dry, high, and dark skies. My goal in Chile was to go to the areas around the major telescopes to see if the information being collected at these major scientific sites (mostly run and owned by North American or European institutions), was being shared and taught to the children nearby.

I spent my first week in Santiago, adjusting and making plans, as well as meeting with astronomers who also specialize in astronomy education and outreach. These types of scientists were the people who helped me the most during my time in Chile. I also visited the University of Santiago Planetarium, which gave me my first taste of the Chilean astronomy educational materials available in Chile. The videos were informative and engaging, and gave a nod to the major observatories that made the science possible.

I then spent the next four weeks in La Serena in Chile’s fourth region, which is home to many of the biggest and best telescopes in the world. During my time in La Serena, I lived in the private residence of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and worked with their astronomy outreach staff. The outreach team travels all over the region and throughout Chile, giving talks, mobile planetarium shows and demonstrations for free to any school that shows interest. I was invited to tag along to all of their activities, and I happily accepted every opportunity. I usually played an observer role, noting what things the kids found interesting, and what things made them zone out or nod off. I also took note of the things they already seemed to know, by the answers they gave or the questions they asked. At times, I had the chance to speak with kids in small groups or one-on-one about astronomy. These were the moments that were the most rewarding, as this is what I had always envisioned when planning my project.

After a month in La Serena, I moved farther north to Antofagasta, the coastal town in Chile’s Atacama desert. The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, making it a perfect home for the VLT (the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope) and ALMA, the largest Radio Observatory in the world. While I connected with astronomy educators here, too, my project involvement in Antofagasta required much more independence. I was often teaching lessons myself, trying to make them as interactive as possible so I could understand what the kids already knew while simultaneously teaching what I knew.

My favorite lesson I gave was to three classes of fifth graders about constellations. They were learning about Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations, so I gave a short presentation on how those people used astronomy. Then, I asked them to look at a picture of the Atacama desert at night and make their own constellations. They eagerly shared their constellations in the shapes of animals, food, clothing, cartoon-characters, toys and so on. Then, they asked me tons of questions about astronomy ranging from “Where do aliens live?” to “Is it true that one day our Sun will go KABLOOM?” Standing in front of classrooms of kids and talking about astronomy was at times nerve-wracking, but hearing their opinions or generally their exclamations of excitement and wonder made it all worthwhile.

While I absolutely do not intend to attempt to make any generalizations about how kids think about astronomy based on my experiences, I did note the following trends in Chile. First, kids seemed especially wowed when learning about the scales of our Universe -- the size of the Earth compared to the size of the Sun or our entire Galaxy. Learning about the absolute smallness of the Earth never ceased to fascinate them, just as it never ceases to fascinate me, the semi-grown-up astro-nerd. I also noticed that a majority of their questions and interests were related to the possible end of human existence, such as the likelihood of Earth-destined asteroids, the inevitable death of our sun, or possible contact with a black hole. It was remarkable to learn that children became motivated by the fear of human mortality. Strikingly deep for such young kids.

In regards to their prior knowledge of astronomy, I noticed that most kids from all types of educational backgrounds generally knew about the planets and solar system, and some knew about galaxies or the Big Bang. They could usually name at least one constellation -- Scorpio, the Southern Cross or the tres marias (what I know as Orion). Many of them had visited one of the many professional or tourist observatories in their region. Any knowledge they had (or shared) was scientific in nature, as opposed to more personal or imaginative. All of what I observed in Chile wasn’t necessarily surprising, but I do wonder how it will compare to what I will learn in countries with extremely different relationships to astronomy.

Mixed in with my trips to schools, I was also fortunate enough to take trips to the famous observatories themselves, sometimes with students by my side, and sometimes with just a few generous telescope operators willing to show me around. Every time, looking into those giant mirrors, 6-8 meters in diameter, was both like looking into the eye of a giant beast and simultaneously like meeting a beloved celebrity. It never got old to see the tremendous machines that made the discoveries which provided the foundation for my knowledge and love of astronomy.

I was supposed to leave Chile in early October, but I decided to extend my stay by two weeks to allow for time to go to Noche Zero, an international, interdisciplinary conference on light pollution set in the heart of the Atacama desert. This conference brought together lighting designers, artists, astronomers, neurobiologists and environmentalists to discuss how light affects science, our earth, the human body and our daily lives. Light pollution education is becoming a larger part of astronomy education, and I felt grateful to learn more about this multifaceted issue. I also helped lead astronomy outreach activities put on by the conference, and I felt completely in my element helping one group of kids build solar system models while showing another group images of galaxies and nebulae. Making the decision to stay in Chile a little longer was absolutely the right one. Those last two weeks ended up being what I consider to be the meat of my project so far, and I am so grateful for the flexibility that allowed me to make that happen.

Now I’ve been in Nepal for a week, and it has been filled already with activity and adventure, both project-related and otherwise. At times in Chile, I felt stagnant -- that I wasn’t doing enough or that I was constantly waiting for others. Working with kids can be tricky, since you need permission from their adults to talk with them directly. Through that experience, I’ve learned how to take action faster, plan ahead, and also welcome the unexpected without overthinking. I’ve just spent three days at an orphan home in rural Nepal, living with eight children and their guardians, hanging out, playing games and looking through my tiny telescope. In those three short days, I learned not just about their ideas of astronomy, but also about their daily lives. Looking through my small telescope at the moon and Jupiter was something that they seemed to appreciate, and something I’ll never forget.

Tomorrow I start training for a volunteer program teaching English in a Buddhist monastery just outside of Kathmandu. While I’ll be teaching English, I’ll also spend time talking with the kids about astronomy, and learning about Buddhist perspectives about the Universe. I already see how problematic the “volun-tourism” trend is here in Nepal, but I hope to learn about and understand Nepali and Buddhist culture while sharing what I know about astronomy in the most humble and self-aware way possible.
Thank you, Watson Foundation, for making this year the amazing adventure it has been so far. Who knows what will happen between now and my next update in early February!

All the best,

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