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.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Year

This past week was the Nepali festival Tihar, the festival of lights and also a celebration of the Nepali lunar New Year. Kathmandu became decorated with flowers, candles and Christmas-type lights for Tihar, which is often considered the second-most important festival after Dasain. 

Tihar decorations
I had the opportunity to celebrate Tihar with the family of Bhupendra Ghimire, the head of Volunteer Initiatives Nepal (VIN). He openly invited a whole hoard of volunteers to participate in the festivities of his family, watching as he and his siblings exchanged gifts and put tika on each others foreheads. We were then invited to do the same and were spoiled as special guests.

Bhupi and his sister exchanging tika for Tihar. 
Our turn to be spoiled with flowers, tika and food
Even though Tihar is mainly a Hindu festival, the monastery also took a day and a half off and the kids celebrated by watching movies, playing games, and enjoying the fireworks and celebrations taking place in the neighborhood. The school next door held a traditional celebration with music and dance in their courtyard, and so we at the monastery climbed onto the roof to watch. 

The Tihar holiday has inspired a sort of personal "New Years" mentality, meaning that I'm ready and actively working to shift my project into a higher gear. This started for me last Wednesday when I took the day off from the monastery and went to an exhibit on Science and Buddhism. The focus of the exhibit was primarily on neuroscience, and specifically on how both modern science and Buddhism view the five senses. 
Science and Buddhism exhibit
Science texts written for monks
There was also a talk by previous-geneticist, current-monk, and overall famous guy, Matthieu Richard. Sara Taggart sent me a TED talk by him just as I was transitioning from Chile to Nepal, and it was great to hear him speak in person about how meditation physically changes the structure of the brain. 
Matthieu Ricard giving a talk on meditation and the brain.
While the focus of the exhibit wasn't astronomy/physics based, I did get to talk to a few people about the collaborations between astronomy and Buddhism (and science and religion in general). Before going to the exhibit, I was feeling antsy about delving into my project. Afterwards, the antsy-ness turned into actual action to plan out what the rest of my time here is going to be like.

On Friday I met with Sudeep Neupane, who is UNAWE Nepal's main point of contact. (I did an internship at the headquarters of Universe Awareness, or UNAWE, in Leiden, the Netherlands, last summer.) Sudeep just received his masters degree in physics with a focus in astronomy and has been actively involved with astronomy outreach in Nepal for the past few years. He generously offered to help me find schools to visit and children to talk with about astronomy. Through this connection, I went to my first school (or second, if you count the monastery as my first) today, and will be teaching a lesson on astronomy to four classes there tomorrow afternoon. The lessons will be very similar to the ones I gave in Chile -- general overviews of astronomy with a focus on interactivity so I can simultaneously gauge what the students already know. When I met the classes today to introduce myself, the students seemed to know a lot about what astronomy is and how things in the Universe work. I told them that tonight they should go out and look at the stars, as well as think about any stories or legends they know about astronomy so that tomorrow they can share what they know and observed before I share what I know. 

It feels great to be making moves with my project, while still taking time to explore and enjoy Kathmandu. This past weekend, I went with some monks and the regular English teacher at the monastery for a walk (hike? our flip flops would indicate no, but the steep uphill trails would indicate yes) to the Amitabha Monastery. The "White Temple," as it is known by the locals, is a gorgeous and ornate monastery that sits high in the hills above my own neighborhood, giving dramatic views of the Kathmandu valley. The monastery is only open to visitors on Saturdays, and most of the visitors are local Nepali people. For some reason, perhaps its remote location, this is not a main tourist destination, despite its beauty.  
Views form the hike.

The monks I went with are all about my age, and while I sometimes tried to steer the conversation towards science or Buddhism, they would often change the subject to pop culture. They haven't gone on their retreat yet, and so they said their knowledge of Buddhism is basic, even though they've been living in the monastery since childhood. Just like how the kids I teach are like any other kids who like to play and fight and get wild, these monks are just like any other 20ish-year-olds, who enjoy sports and music, joking around, and thinking about the future. 

Only just over a week left in the monastery, and then another two weeks after that in Nepal. I hope to be able to mix school visits with a bit of travel, and also to get the most out of my time at the monastery while I'm here.

Some fun pictures to end with:
Helping to cook at the monastery. LARGEST pots and pans I've every seen -- even at Catoctin.
Swinging after the white temple hike. Probably my last time on a Dasain swing! 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Life in the Monastery

I've been at Karma Samten Ling for one week now, and am getting used to my routines living and working in a Buddhist monastery. My days go a little something like this...

6:30am - Wake up, not out of necessity, but out of a combination of falling asleep at 8:30pm the night before and also the sounds of children screaming, bells ringing, trumpets sounding, dogs barking and monks chanting. Usually I stay in bed and read quietly until 7:30, as to not add more noise and disturb my roommate and fellow-volunteer, Dana.

8:00am-8:45am - Go to the office to go over my lesson plans, drink approximately 4 cups of Nepali chiya, or traditional sweet milky tea, and have a little breakfast. The woman who serves the tea, Khanda, is slightly terrifying and often shouts at me in Nepali with a scowl, particularly when I attempt to get or wash my own teacup. In reality, I think she's really a kind and generous person, and just wants me to drink a lot of tea without serving myself. The language barrior, though, makes for some confusing and hilarious daily interactions.

8:45am-11:30am - Teaching! I have four classes, each 40 minutes long. This is my first experience teaching English. It's also my first time  having a consistent group of students that I see everyday, build relationships with, need lesson-plans for and so on. It's definitely a new experience. Students are so variable in mood and energy from day-to-day, and its hard to know what to expect. Here are some pictures of my classes:
"Nursery" class, although you can see that the age in students ranges quite a bit. The youngest student in this class is 3, and the oldest is 14.
Class III. They have the highest level of English comprehension of all my students, and the small class size helps make  class better overall.
Class II. Again, you can see the range in age between the students.
Class I. The small class size helps, but English comprehension is still greatly varied from student-to-student.
They may look like sweet, angelic monks, but don't let the robes fool you. Favorite activities for these boys include all the standards for any other group of boys their age -- playing, shouting, kicking, fighting, spitting, running, and so on. Needless to say, classroom management has become something new for me as well.

11:30am - Lunch, consisting of dahl bat, rice and lentil soup, with a side of some kind of curried vegetables. Delicious, and there's always tons to eat, although the same everyday. By the time the weekend rolled around, I was looking forward to having pizza or falafel in town.

12:00-5:00pm - Kathmandu exploration. Since I have my afternoons off, I've spent this past week taking the time to go on walks, see some sites, and get to know the Kathmandu area a little more. The Swayambu Stupa is always an option, since its only a two minute walk away. It's tourist nickname is "the monkey temple," and its true that it is overrun by these terrifying creatures, but the temple is also huge and beautiful and sits on top of a giant hill, giving great views of the Kathmandu Valley. Since it's up so high, it also consistently acts as a landmark of home when I go out on adventures. I can easily see it from any area nearby, and so never feel lost, despite the chaos of the Kathmandu streets.
Swayambu stupa
Swayambu is nicknames the "Monkey Temple." and you can see why...
Sunset views of the Kathmandu Valley below.
5:00-6:00pm - Arrive back home before it gets dark and have some downtime and more chiya. This is usually when I speak with the adult-monks, who generally speak fairly good English. I've spoken with one in particular about the history and beliefs of Buddhism, but he didn't seem to understand my questions surrounding beliefs about the Universe. As I get to them better, I hope to continue to attempt these kinds of conversations.

6:00pm - Dinner, consisting of the same foods as at lunchtime.

6:30-8:30pm - Reading, downtime, lesson planning.

8:30 or 9:00pm - Sleep. Usually by this point, I'm so exhausted that I just fall asleep before getting to 9:30. The monks, meanwhile, are still up and about, and I usually fall asleep to the sounds of puja, or prayer-time, with monks chanting, drumming, and trumpet-blowing.

I teach for those 3ish hours everyday, Sunday-Friday. Friday is a half-holiday, and classtime is mostly for games. Then, Friday afternoon and all of Saturday, the monks spend time watching movies or playing football (soccer) in town. Yesterday afternoon, I joined in the activities, luckily with no photographic evidence. I could sort of kick the ball, and the monks actually passed to me, but I must say that generally I did not help to accomplish the 3-1 victory versus the non-monk kids we were playing against. I assume the sideline giggles and points were mostly directed at me.

As this next week approaches, I plan to find ways to actively incorporate astronomy-related things into my day. While I do plan to teach some astro-vocabulary in class, I'm not sure that my students at Karma Samten Ling are the best kids to talk with. Their English is very basic, and their energy levels are such that it's hard to have a conversation lasting one minute about anything, let alone the wonders of the Universe. Bringing out my telescope around them would absolutely not work. Since the Galileoscope is... primitive... to  put it lightly, it takes a lot of time, patience and frequent adjustment to look at a single object. Working with 60 high energy kids and the Galileoscope would be rough. So, I'm looking into going to other, smaller monasteries in the Swayambu neighborhood to do more project-related things. Going to schools in the area is also an option. It's been frustrating not having that bit come as naturally as I imagined, but hopefully with some brainstorming and help from people at my volunteer organization, astronomy+kid related activities will take off ASAP.

I remember feeling in Chile at times that I consistently had the astronomy component, but it was the kid-factor that was missing. Finding classes to go to and kids to talk with took planning and time, but luckily I made it work before leaving. With only 4 weeks left here, I hope that the missing astronomy component will also fall into place soon.

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,