Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The fast part of the roller coaster

(Apologies in advance for this long and mostly project-related post. There are some pictures at the end!)

If the Watson is like a roller coaster ride (which it is), then my last post described the part where you're slowly ascending up the track, feeling the anticipation build as you're unsure exactly when the drop is going to come. Since then, I've been going through the exciting parts of the ride-- all the drops, loop-di-loops and fast turns.

In other words, I've been busy. I 've continued teaching in the monastery every day for three hours in the mornings. I managed to fold in some astronomy into the lessons and hear what the monklets have learned from their science classes. They could all identify the sun, the moon and the stars, but it was unclear if they knew their relationships. Some said the moon was bigger than Earth, since the Sun was bigger than the Earth and the moon looked about the same size. Some knew the size relations, but thought the moon went around the Sun, and not the Earth. A select few knew that all of that was wrong, and they knew the causes of moon phases, seasons and so on. So, in general, a big mix, but nothing too advanced.

I looked at their science books (made by the Nepali Curriculum Development Center), and in the 2-4 pages related to astronomy, there was only very basic information. They gave the names of the planets, and some small facts, but not in detail. They said the moon changes shape, but didn't explain why. They described the rotation of the Earth as the reason for day and night, but again, not in detail. So no wonder the knowledge was mixed. Even though the monks have science class, astronomy is by no means emphasized or taught well. Moreover, most of the students seemed generally uninterested in the conversation. While a few seemed engaged and excited to share what they knew, most of them were looking at me like "Why are you talking about this?"

Meanwhile, I've been taking the afternoons to travel to schools around Kathmandu and give lessons to students on astronomy with the help of Sudeep Neupane, founder and vice president of the Nepal Astronomical Society (NASO). NASO also works with UNAWE, Astronomers without Borders, EurAstro, the Galileo Teacher Training Program, and many other related organizations. Needless to say, Sudeep has a LOT of connections with schools and teachers in Nepal interested in astronomy.

During my school visits, I've been giving general lessons to large groups of students in grades 8-10 (ages 13-16). The knowledge in these groups is widely varied, although there are usually a few students that take the lead, showing that they know more about astronomy, asking questions as sophisticated as "How do black holes form?" "What is the Universe expanding into?" and "Could you please explain the concept of Hawking Radiation?" These students seem to exist in every school. They have long lists of questions and are thirsty for more knowledge about science. It's incredible to see such young people so passionate about astronomy, but I'm also aware that their knowledge is not representative of their classmates'. Some other students asked questions like "Why does the Sun seem to follow me when I'm walking home?" "What happens when you make a wish on a falling star?" and, the most popular, "Is it true the world will end in 2012?" But those questions only came out quietly, after the main talk. Students are embarrassed to ask questions if there's a chance that the answer is obvious and their classmates will laugh at them.

Last week, after going to a school in the early afternoon, I accompanied Sudeep to visit one of his old professors, Shivraj, who has since left astronomy to become a professional astrologer (more lucrative, I assume). I was hoping to ask him questions about astrology, its history and its importance in Nepal. But Shivraj, upon seeing me, assumed that I wanted my future told. I didn't want to be rude, so I gave him my date, time and place of birth and he looked up how the planets, sun and moon were aligned during my birth. He predicted success in my academic future, and a long and happy life. Thank goodness!

While I don't believe that the location of celestial bodies at my birth could predict my future, I respect that this is a practice that some people follow here in Nepal. After all, it's just another way that people connect with the Universe. Many families consult an astrologer at the birth of their child, and name the baby based on what the astrologer says. I wanted to speak more to Shivraj about the history, but claiming a lack of time, he suggested that I come back another day. So far, he hasn't had time to see me again (surprise!) but I do hope to discuss astrology more with people in the know before I leave Nepal in just over two weeks.

Yesterday I gave my final monklet English classes and moved out of the monastery. It was a really important experience for me, even though it was nothing like what I had hoped or expected. Even though I didn't get to focus as much on astronomy as I thought I would, teaching those kids every day still gave me some much needed lessons about how to be an effective educator. Again, on this roller-coaster Watson ride, its always impossible to predict what kinds of challenges you'll encounter and what value each new experience will present. Working with those kids taught me a lot about classroom management, patience, and how to communicate with young people who don't speak the same language as me. All very important lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Now that I'm moved out, I'm moving onto the next phase of my time here. Here's what's on  the agenda for me in the weeks to come:

1. Today I leave Kathmandu and head back to Panauti, the small town I went to my first week here. I'll be going with friends there to a Nepali wedding, which will be a blast and a much needed break from the busy project-related things I've been doing lately.

2. From Panauti, I'll go to Pokhora, the second-largest city in Nepal. Pokhora is a tourist hot-spot, situated on a beautiful lake with a lot of options for outdoor adventure. My priorities for that trip (in order) are as follows:

    1. Talk to as many children about outer space as possible. With Sudeep's help, I'll be going to several schools in the area. I hope to connect with younger students, too, since I've only been talking with students ages 13-16 so far, plus the younger kids from the monastery.
    2. Find adults who are knowledgeable about ancient astronomy and astrology in Nepal and hear about those histories and practices.
    3. Enjoy being out of Kathmandu. Maybe trekking, maybe mountain biking. In general, though, I hope to avoid the tourist scene. If I go trekking, I'll do it solo or with friends, and not with a trekking company or guide.

3. Hopefully on the way back, Sudeep and I will also be hosting a star party for a school in a small village halfway between Pokhora and Kathmandu. That would be a perfect way to end the trip before coming back to Kathmandu for final business and goodbyes.

Apologies that this post has been all project and word updates with no pictures. Here are some fun ones from the past few weeks to close with.
Thanksgiving with a hodge-podge of friends and travelers. We made a delicious meal of mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, Annie's mac and cheese, store-bought rotisserie chicken and apple pie. While I missed my own family a lot, it was nice to be with other Americans and find a make-shift family. 
Playing frisbee with the monks. They LOVED it... perhaps even too much. My disc is pretty tacoed and one kid got a bloody nose from getting hit in the face, but they asked me again and again to play with it later. (The other funny thing about this picture is that the kid in the foreground was more interested in my camera than the frisbee. He jumped into every picture I took screaming "MISS PICTURE ME MISS PICTURE." Love it.)

1 comment:

  1. NO APOLOGIES ALLOWED. i LOVE hearing about your project! i'll read your lovely writing sans photos any day.

    way to really grab nepal by the horns, maya. it's so awesome to hear how you've managed to push through and make the best of some of the challenging circumstances you were up against early on. have SUCH a great time in your last few weeks/days??! i'm glad you're giving yourself some time to go trekking/mountain biking along with accomplishing all your ambitious and fascinating project goals.

    also, space-print things (specifically, apparel) are becoming very trendy here... which is cool, obviously, but every time i see something in galaxy print i think about you and how ahead of the curve you are.

    so much love!