Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Center of the Astronomy Education Universe

[A long, but unapologetic, photo-light, astro-ed/project- heavy post. You're right, MKC! I shouldn't be apologizing for sharing the details of my project. I am sorry for the many many acronyms, but hopefully I've made them as clear as possible. And for you skimmers out there, feel free to skip to the photos of Cape Town at the end.]]

"Scientific endeavour is not purely utilitarian in its objectives and has important associated cultural and social values. It is also important to maintain a basic competence in "flagship" sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons. Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future - the view that we are a second class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.
-- South African White Paper on Science & Technology,  
Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology 
4 September 1996

I've been in Cape Town for just over three weeks now, and have comfortably settled into PHASE THREE of my journey. South Africa, in many ways, is considered to be a mecca for astronomy education in that there are many well-funded, well-established programs that educate the public about astronomy. The excerpt above is one example of how the South African government has made science education, and astronomy education in particular, a priority for the country. The last sentence most clearly articulates this priority -- in order for South Africans to make an impact on today's world, and to become true global citizens, knowledge and ownership of science is imperative.

This national priority is realized through the many South African astronomical centers. The main institution is the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), home to the South African Large Telescope (SALT). SALT is the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a diameter of 9.8m (the largest telescope I saw in Chile was the VLT on Cerro Paranal, which has a diameter of 8.2m). The headquarters of SAAO is in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory (or "Obz" as the locals call it). This is where I'll primarily be living and working while in South Africa. The SALT telescope itself is in the town of Sutherland, about a four hour drive away. I plan to visit Sutherland next month and work with some of the outreach projects that are taking place there.

As the quote above implies, science development is not just for scientists, but also for the benefit of the whole country. Thus, SALT has implemented a Collateral Benefits Plan, which funds education and outreach activities all over South Africa. In the words of former SAAO director, Prof Patricia Whitelock, "When SALT was set up we realized that it would be a huge waste if we simply ran it for the benefit of our international partners." 10% of SALT's budget goes directly towards community projects and outreach, especially in disadvantaged communities.

** THIS IS THE PART THAT I LOVE. ** Not only is South Africa investing in innovative science projects, but they simultaneously see the importance in funding science education. SALT is therefore by South Africa and for South Africa. In Chile, there are dozens of cutting-edge observatories and research projects, but Chileans have limited access to those resources as the observatories are owned and operated by foreign institutions. While SALT has many strong international partners (the US, UK, New Zealand, Germany and Poland), the SALT Collateral Benefits Plan ensures that South Africans are profiting from the major projects on their home soil.

SAAO headquarters in Cape Town also hosts the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) of the International Astronomical Union (the IAU, best known for demoting Pluto in 2006). The OAD is specifically designed for "Using astronomy to make the world a better place." In addition to working with SAAO in local outreach projects, I also hope to work with the OAD to learn about astronomy education projects around the world.

The Square Kilometere Array (SKA) is another huge project and point of pride in the South African astronomy community. The SKA, with its headquarters in the UK, will be the most powerful radio observatory in the world when it is completed in 2019. The array will incorporate thousands of radio dishes and antennae spread out over 3000km. The "Square Kilometere" describes the approximate surface area of all of those antennae combined. South Africa recently won the bid for site selection of the SKA, with a majority of the antennae and dishes being built in Southern Africa, and the rest in Australia and New Zealand. While SKA construction won't officially start until 2016, South Africa has already started MeerKAT, a 64-dish array that has now been designated as the pathfinder for the SKA in South Africa. They're doing some cool outreach projects, too, like this comic book:

In addition to these major projects, there are also dozens of science centers and planetariums across South Africa. **ANOTHER GREAT THING** is that everyone works together! The planetarium staff collaborate and share resources with the outreach groups which work with local educators and so on. There are regular meetings of South African EPO (Education and Public Outreach) staff to discuss their current projects and how best to work together. Interestingly enough, this kind of communication and collaboration is fairly very rare, in my experience. In Chile, for example, some outreach groups were funded by Universities, others by North American-funded observatories, others by European observatories. Very rarely was there communication between the different groups. It's refreshing to learn that here ideas and resources are shared.

In the coming days, I'll be getting settled in at SAAO and carving out how I'll fit into these many wonderful, pre-existing programs. I'll also be thinking about projects that I want to do independently. After three weeks of a "vacation" without anything project related, I definitely feel ready to get moving again on the project.

These three weeks have been wonderful, though, as I've been able to explore the area, make friends (mostly by playing frisbee), and get settled. I was lucky enough to have my mom over the holidays, and she proved to be the best travel and adventure companion for exploring this amazing city. Some pictures:
Exploring Cape Town cuisine with Mom!
Biking through the Cape Winelands
Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean from Signal Hill
The cloudy view from the top of Table Mountain after our Christmas morning hike. 
Penguin-watching at Boulder's beach
Thanks for reading! SAAO has let me borrow a computer for my time here, so I hope to be writing and updating more often. That means I'll be more contactable by email, but you can also send SNAIL MAIL to:

Maya Barlev
Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD)
South African Astronomical Observatory
P.O. Box 9
South Africa

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