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!