Thursday, August 30, 2012

More project! More Adventures! More in La Serena

The past week and a half has been generally great and filled with more trips to schools, more adventures, and more new friends. I'm starting to get comfortable here in my La Serena life, which I guess means it's almost time to leave. I head to Antofagasta next Tuesday or Wednesday, but until then, I hope to fit in a few more small trips and adventures. Over the next three days I'll be going to three observatories -- tourist observatory Mamalluca tonight, back to Tololo tomorrow with students from the Saint Mary School, and then to Las Companas on Saturday with some scientists I met this week.

But I'm getting ahead of myself... This week I went to different schools for Gemini's annual "Viaje al Universo" which is a whole week of outreach. They go to schools in the area every day of the week, and have activities for the students, teachers and families. Activities include talks by scientists, rocket-building and planetarium shows (which is what I was helping with). There are also posters and packets with information about the Gemini telescopes and light pollution. I really like how light pollution is woven into the outreach activities here, showing the connection between the observatories and the daily lives of people living in the cities nearby. A few pictures from the week:

rocket-building (and launching!) at a BEAUTIFUL school in the Elqui Valley
Daniel in the mobile planetarium
Because all the activities were planned out, there wasn't really the structure for me to do what I was doing last week, talking with kids one-on-one or in small groups. So, I've mostly been playing the observer role, going to the talks and demonstrations, and just listening at what the kids find interesting and what questions they have. I've found that they get especially excited when the discussion includes:
1. Black holes
3. Any cool videos or interactive clips

So nothing new or especially different from anything back home. I have noticed though that most talks I've seen include notions of what astronomy is, what astronomers do, and what technology is being used right in their nook of the world. Often they emphasize how special Chile is to scientists and why it has been chosen again and again for the sites of the major projects. Last week, I was talking to some 8th graders, and told them that because of this, there are a lot of opportunities for Chilean students to excel in the field. But in reality, I'm not sure how true this is. Most of the scientists I've met here have been from somewhere else (ahem, Europe and United States), and its unclear to me how many jobs are actually available for Chilean people or how common it is to study astronomy in school. The University of La Serena, for example, which is practically in the backyard of these major telescopes, doesn't even have an Astronomy department... Besides these wonderful outreach activities in schools, I wonder if the how much the Chilean people actually benefit from the presence of these telescopes. I'm sure this will be a question I continue to ask for the rest of my 5 or so weeks here.

Besides *PROJECT* related stuff, I've also been having some wonderful adventures in town. The best so far has been an epic day-trip bike-ride to Coquimbo, this time by myself. I found an excellent path to bike on instead of the crowded streets and sidewalks and then enjoyed a day at the STUNNING Fort of Coquimbo, climbing on the rocks, enjoying the view of both the ocean AND the Andes, frolicking around and taking a series of self-timer selfies.
By giant mountain bike, Betty, looking out at the ocean about halfway between Coquimbo and La Serena
An abandoned building in Coquimbo
Fort of Coquimbo. Could have spent all day there...

Other adventures have included:

Exploring the Parks of La Serena:
Pedro de Valdivia Parque which is also a zoo. Most of the animals looks very sad and caged, but these llamas roamed free.

Japanese Garden and park of La Serena
 And of course, adventures in Food:
Small bounty obtained for about $6 at the local faria (farmers market)

The papayas couldn't be eaten raw, so I made it into a syrup. Delicious, but need suggestions of what to put it on...
Oranges growing freely in the Elqui Valley
Incredible fried fish sandwich in Coquimbo

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!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Getting Settled in La Serena

For the next month, I'll be living in La Serena, a town about 6 hours north of Santiago. La Serena is the capital city of the Coquimbo region, which is home to some of the biggest and most influential observatories in modern Astronomy, including Gemini South, SOAR and NOAO South, to name a few. The LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) -- which is a HUGE deal for astronomy -- is also being built here. In addition to these well-known scientific instruments, La Serena is also home to many "tourist" observatories designed specifically for public outreach. While I'm here, I hope to visit as many scientific and tourist observatories as possible to try to understand if the proximity to these powerful instruments influences children's understanding of the Universe.

In La Serena, I'm living on the compound of AURA, the umbrella organization of all of the major scientific observatories in Coquimbo. The compound is on a hill above the city, and is a bit of an Americanized bubble. My house has American plugs and appliances and most of the signs are in English. The observatories are funded by the US government and the compound (el recinto) was built this way back when it was still very far from La Serena, and was primarily occupied by American scientists here for observing runs. Now, La Serena is bigger, and more permanent staff occupy the houses on the hill.
View from the top of the hill. You can see La Serena below and the ocean glistening in the distance.
Settling in here has been a shift from my time in Santiago. My house is quiet (there's one other student living with me, although she's currently on a long vacation), and a trip to the grocery store involves a long walk there, and a longer, more strenuous walk back up the hill. But it's beautiful here, and I can see the stars at night much better than in the center of the city. I even took my first real star photo! It's not very good, probably due to some limitations on my camera. But you can see some stars, as well as the light pollution from the city below...

Last week, I met with Leonor Opazo, one of the outreach people I'll be working with while I'm here. She gave me a great presentation on the work CTIO (Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory) does, the resources they have, and also the limitations in their outreach capabilities. They do a LOT of activities with kids and teachers locally and all over Chile, and I'll be tagging along on as many activities as I can while I'm here.

On Saturday, Leonor organized for me to go up to the observatory itself for a day trip. Every Saturday, they give observatory tours for free, although the trek up there can be expensive. Also, the tours get booked very quickly and people often have to reserve spots months in advance. As a "guest of the observatory" I got to ride up with the tour guides directly from my neighborhood and spend the whole day there. Pictures of the telescopes:
1.5m telescope + school group
4 m telescope under construction to install DECam, to investigate and "survey" Dark Energy

And pictures of the natural world surrounding the telescopes:

mountain rabbit
two fox who hang out by the cafeteria

I had an AWESOME day. It was overcast when we left La Serena, and it was phenomenal driving through the clouds and into the sunny mountains. When we first arrived, it looked like there was an ocean of clouds right below us.

Kadur, the tour guide, was especially accommodating and took me to all the best areas around the observatories. I went on his morning tour, which was entirely in Spanish, and understood (almost) all of it! In the afternoon, I walked around the premises and enjoyed the landscape while talking with observatory staff, also in Spanish. My language skills definitely improve every day I'm here, I just wonder sometimes if I'll ever be able to understand full-speed Chilean Spanish.

The rest of my time here has been spent exploring La Serena. On the morning observatory tour on Saturday, I met Australian Kimberley and British Sarah, who were in La Serena together from Santiago. I tagged along on their weekend plans and had a nice time exploring and enjoying the sunny beach with them on Sunday. Pictures from my adventures both with them and solo:

This week I look forward to meeting more of the outreach team and getting started with activities! While I talked briefly with some kids at the observatory on Saturday, I look forward to having more structured time to delve into the heart of my project.