Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Right now, now-now, just now, later

One of the first lessons that I had to learn when I got to Cape Town was that when someone says "I'll be there just now" they don't mean "now." Sometimes, they don't even mean "soon." Instead, that phrase is reserved for some time floating in the undesignated future. Meanwhile "now-now," which sounds to my untrained American ear as "immediately," is actually referring to some time soon-ish, usually before "just now."

Now that I understand these non-intuitive phrases, they're actually proving to be quite useful as I balance actively doing my project in Cape Town (RIGHT now), organizing the rest of my time in South Africa (now-now), planning the second half of my Watson (just now), and starting to brainstorm what I want my life to look like after August (later).

Right Now in Cape Town:
This past month, I've gone on a few school visits around Cape Town, giving my usual interactive talk and engaging with kids in my standard way. I've seen a variety of schools in several neighborhoods with varying resources and school infrastructures as well as a diversity of student populations.

All of the schools I've visited are "public," but most schools still charge fees, and the school decides how high the fees are. In some ways, it reminds me of my home in Montgomery County, Maryland, where there is a wide range of public schools, in a variety of neighborhoods. The difference is that schools in the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area are still technically free and therefore the same cost as schools in Silver Spring or Wheaton, even though they have more resources and typically nicer facilities. In Cape Town, you can clearly see the differences those higher schools fees make, with smaller class sizes, more resources, after-school clubs and so on.

In addition to school visits, I'm attempting to also think outside the box, and engage with kids in more informal settings. In my original Watson proposal, I envisioned times when I would chat with kids and families in public parks and not always need the formal educational structure of schools. In Chile and Nepal, lack of green spaces, language barrier, and my own uncertainties prevented this from happening. In South Africa, I have no excuses, and feel determined to follow through and make it work.

So, this past weekend, I went with some friends and a bag full of crafts and supplies to Green Point Park, my favorite urban park in Cape Town. When my mom was here, we were amazed by this expansive, intricate, and inclusive park. We joked that it looked a little like Sesame Street, with kids from all backgrounds playing and working together.

As a first attempt, it worked fairly well. Some kids came over, and while painting a rocket or planet on their face, we'd talk about what they knew about astronomy. Usually they said things like "the moon is made of cheese," (it is, right?) but sometimes other spurts of creativity and imagination came out. I'm hoping to do this at least once more before leaving Cape Town, improving with more time and better quality face paint.

Last week, I also visited the Cape Town Planetarium and Cape Town Science Center, reminding me how much I adore these types of informal education spaces. I hope later on to go back and observe how they work with visiting school groups to see what the experience is like for kids.
Standing on the Western Cape in the Cape Town Science Center.
Now-now: My trip across South Africa
Tomorrow I'll leave for a cross-country, multi-city, solo adventure around South Africa, visiting planetariums and observatories in large cities, but also stopping in small towns and hopefully hosting small star parties and perhaps visiting schools. The route will look something like this:

While I'll miss the routine and community I have in Cape town, I'm looking forward to a change of pace and the chance to explore this country through the lens of my project.

Just Now: Watson Ahead
The latest and greatest update is that I've officially added Ethiopia to my project list. I'll be going just for a short three week visit from late March to early April. Who knows why, but I've always wanted to travel to Ethiopia. (I credit the Ethiopian community in the D.C. area as well as the Ethiopian art in my grandparents house.) They have a burgeoning observatory and professional astronomy community there, and as a consequence, outreach is continuing to grow. I'm looking forward to exploring a very different part of Africa and learning how astronomy education is developing there.

After Ethiopia, I'll be back in Cape Town briefly, hopefully with a quick jaunt to up Namibia for a week (stay tuned). Then, in mid April, I'll finally push off to New Zealand. As I've cut into my time there dramatically, I'm working to plan my time there as best I can to make it as productive as possible.

Later: Post-Watson thoughts?
This area of planning is still very open, very theoretical, and very far away, as far as I'm concerned. My project, though, is making me think more and more about my life after August. I am certain in my passion for using astronomy to make the world a better place, but this is so open-ended and my path to making that happen could go many many ways. Should I pursue a higher degree in astronomy? Should I instead think of studying global education? National education policies? Science communication?

One of the many wonderful things about working with the Office of Astronomy for Development has been being mentored by Kevin Govender, who is so generous with his time and sharing his infinite wisdom on these matters (usually in exchange for a loaf of freshly baked bread). For now, he's advised me to consider not what I want to be, or what I want to do, but instead what I want to learn, and taking it from there. I'm hoping for some time to reflect on that fantastic advice as I spend the next weeks in buses, seeing this country and reflecting on my time here.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any, comments are always greatly appreciated.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


February 1 marked the halfway mark of this amazing Watson year. It's hard to believe how quickly time is moving and simultaneously how packed my time has been with activity and adventure. Below are the contents of my second Quarterly Report, submitted to Watson HQ. It was challenging to write about everything that I've seen and done since November, but hopefully I struck a balance between not writing too much and also not oversimplifying my experiences. 

Part I: Nepal
I intended to write the first half of this quarterly report six weeks ago, when I first arrived in South Africa and my thoughts and reflections of my time in Nepal were fresh. I knew that if I waited to write about my time in Nepal until now, that challenging and intensely rewarding eight weeks would fade and become smaller and less significant in my memory. Alas, with the Watson as it is, I broke this promise to myself and must report on my time in Nepal as I recall it now.
            When I last checked in, I was about to start working with a volunteer program teaching young kids in a Buddhist monastery. I debated whether or not volunteering was the best course of action for realizing my project in Nepal. On the one hand, this kind of organization and structure would give me access to kids for my project without the delay of building contacts. But, on the other hand, the volunteer program was much more expensive than the cost of living in Nepal, and it wasn’t too clear to me where the money would go. After a lot of thought, I decided to go for it. I was in Nepal to engage with kids from very different religious backgrounds than my own, and I felt that I could gain something special by living and working in a Buddhist monastery. Luckily, the organization I went through, Volunteer Initiatives Nepal, proved to be a wonderful organization, and I was happy to support them.
            This did not mean that my time in Nepal went smoothly and as planned, of course. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but my vision of life in a monastery was of stereotypical peacefulness and tranquillity. I assumed the kids that lived there would be shy and introspective, with mentors who helped them to become composed and self-aware. This could not have been further from the truth. With about 80 boys ages 3 to 16, and only a few older men to supervise them, these kids turned out to be quite a handful.
It was my job to teach four classes of English every morning. My plan was to incorporate themes of astronomy into my lessons during my 3-4 weeks there and then to speak with kids about astronomy during mealtimes or other casual settings that would naturally arise from living together. Language barrier and lack of interest prevented this from happening, and I quickly had to change my plan and find different ways to accomplish my larger project goals elsewhere in Kathmandu and Nepal.
Connecting with astronomer, educator and founder of the Nepal Astronomical Society, Sudeep Neupane, almost instantly changed my life in Kathmandu for the better. After meeting him, my new routine consisted of teaching in the monastery every morning, and going to schools around Kathmandu with him every afternoon. At the monastery, while I wasn’t able to focus on astronomy, I was, without a doubt, becoming a much better educator. Teaching those kids six days a week gave me a crash course in classroom management, lesson planning, improvisation, and resourcefulness. I learned to let conversations of astronomy arise less frequently, but more organically, usually triggered by my space-themed accessories or from the growing rumour of my being a scientist. Meanwhile, my afternoons in schools allowed me to engage with the original goals of my project. In less than a month, I visited almost a dozen schools and interacted with hundreds of kids.
From my time in the monastery and my time in schools, I feel like I got a good understanding of kids’ general ideas about astronomy as well as the educational culture in Nepal. Here are a few observations I made (again, I do not aim to generalize about all of Nepal, but these are rather patterns I observed):
1.      I found an emphasis on repetition and memorization in most Nepali classrooms. Students were mostly being taught to regurgitate answers as opposed to being encouraged to ask questions or work through problems. This meant that I often got cookie-cutter answers to my questions (e.g. “A star is a heavenly body made of gas”).
2.      No matter which school I went to, there seemed to always be at least one student, regardless of grade level, location or school ranking, who was obsessed with astronomy. These students would ask questions about black holes, the curvature of space-time, dark matter, quasars, and the Big Bang – topics I didn’t learn about until college. While these enthusiasts were from various backgrounds and geographical areas, the one commonality I did notice between them was their gender. I don’t doubt that there were girls who were interested in astronomy, but I think the historically patriarchal culture in Nepal made it such that girls remained quiet. These astro-loving boys tended to dominate the conversation, answering every question, raising their hand constantly. Later on, I learned to ask students for written responses so I could gauge the interest and knowledge of an entire class, not just the few enthusiasts.    
3.      I went to Nepal specifically to investigate how religion impacts children’s beliefs about astronomy. During my time there, I learned not just about Buddhist religion in the monastery, but also about Hindu traditions and Sanskrit astronomy. Regardless of the religion itself, I observed that, for most kids, being religious was more ritualistic and less spiritual. Going through the daily pujas did not necessarily imply that they were thinking about their meanings. In Sanskrit astronomy, celestial objects are worshipped and prayed to as gods, and it is believed that the movement of these objects in the sky will have an impact on your personal fortune. Children participate in these rituals, while simultaneously learning in school that these same celestial objects are planets and stars made of rock and gas. When I asked the students about this, they didn’t seem too preoccupied with any possible contradiction. They mostly said they didn’t think about it much, and just did as they were instructed, (again, emphasizing point 1). Some students were naturally critical thinkers and told me decisively that one or the other was correct, but this was rare.
After finishing my month in the monastery, I had 3 weeks to explore and be a “free agent” in Nepal. I took time to travel around the country, see different landscapes and engage with students in different places. I did this either independently or with Sudeep’s help and endless connections. Highlights from that time include going to a traditional Nepali wedding in a tiny and remote village, spending a week traveling and visiting schools in Pokhora, a lovely lakeside town, and passing down my small telescope to a physics teacher in a village school that was beginning to introduce science into the high school curriculum.
            I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about Nepal and its rich history and culture, as well as for the chance to do what I’m passionate about in a very different environment than what I’m used to. However, by the end of my eight weeks there, I was tired -- mostly physically tired from noise, pollution, regular food illness and the general chaos of Kathmandu, but also emotionally and culturally tired from the language barrier, clear gender inequalities, and idealization of me as a white North American.  These discomforts challenged me and pushed me to grow and adapt more rapidly than I ever have, which was simultaneously extremely rewarding and extremely exhausting. By mid-December, I was ready to move on to South Africa for a change of pace, change of weather, and change of schedule.

Part II: South Africa
            By the time I arrived in South Africa, I was craving summer, the ocean, the mountains, English speakers, and some time with family. I was lucky enough to have my mom visit me for a week, and with her, I got into the swing of things in Cape Town. It was nice, even just for a short period of time, to have someone that knows me really well by my side to help me process everything that was going on, both with my Watson and with things back home.
South Africa is renowned for its astounding efforts in astronomy education. There are many well-funded, well-established programs here that aim to educate the public about astronomy. The South African government in particular has made science education, and astronomy education especially, a priority in this country. There are several major scientific institutions here, including the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), home to the Southern African Large Telescope, which is the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa will also soon be home to a majority of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest system of radio telescopes. The difference, however, between these institutions and the large telescopes I visited in Chile, is the clear emphasis on education and outreach. My goal in South Africa is to see how astronomy is reaching children in a plurality of communities in this very racially and socioeconomically diverse place.
            I’m currently based at the SAAO in Cape Town, visiting schools and tagging along to many outreach projects. I’m also working with the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development, an office designed to “use astronomy to make the world a better place.” With the OAD, I’m learning about many global astronomy education projects, and developing resources both for myself, and for other educators who may want them in the future.
            I’m finding myself to feel comfortable and at home in Cape Town, with a house at the observatory, a local frisbee team, many friends and lots of time to explore and enjoy this lovely city. I’m feeling settled, which I suppose means that it will soon be time for me to move on.
I’m now in the process of planning a two-week, cross-country trip across South Africa to science centres, schools and planetariums.  It will hopefully be an action-packed, astronomy-and-kid-filled adventure, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this country.

Part III: Looking ahead
            Now that I’m at the halfway point, I feel restricted only by time. There’s so much that I want to do, and I feel I have the resources and the confidence to do it. Working with people here in Cape Town has given me a global network of ideas and contacts that could help facilitate my project anywhere I go. Now it’s just going to be about decision-making and maximizing of time and resources.
            I plan to add Ethiopia to my list of countries, and go there for just a short, three-week visit to schools and small observatories near the capital. It would be a less complete experience than in the other countries I’ve been to, but I think if it’s well planned, I could get a lot of out of it. Then I’ll come quickly back to Cape Town, gather my items, say some inevitably difficult goodbyes, and head out to New Zealand by mid-April. I’m looking forward to all of it and taking in the challenges and adventures as they come.
            As always, thank you Watson HQ for this amazing opportunity and your endless support!