Saturday, March 23, 2013

Little Maya and the Big Radio Telescope: Day Trip to Carnarvon

A quick and frantic post while taking a break from packing/attempting to eat the remaining contents of my refrigerator since I'm leaving for Ethiopia in apprx 13 hours (!!!)

This week, I had the special opportunity to visit Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, which is home to the main site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), soon-to-be largest radio telescope in the world. Right now, the site is only home to KAT-7, the seven-dish precursor to MeerKAT, which will consist of 50+ dishes and be the pilot project for the 1000+ (yes, not a typo -- ONE THOUSAND) SKA dishes to come over the next decade or so. In total, the SKA will have 3000+ dishes, and span two continents, making it the most sensitive and powerful telescope on the globe.

In summary: Big Science to happen here SOON.

Five of the seven KAT-7 dishes 
At SciFest last week, I met Dr. Nadeem Oozeer, Operations and Commissioning Scientist for the SKA, and he offered to show JC (new project director of the OAD) and I around the SKA site. Nadeem organized for us to fly to Carnarvon and back on the same day with the special SKA 8-passenger plane, and so we were able to see this fairly remote place in the Karoo without having to make a huge trip.
JC and Nadeem at the top of the hill above the KAT-7
Tiny plane we took to Carnavron! Felt like a celebrity.

It was awesome! Again, I felt like I was meeting a celebrity when I saw the KAT-7 dishes. It's wonderful to think of all of the incredible science that will come out of this place in the years ahead. I also hope/expect that, as with SALT in Sutherland, the SKA will work to contribute to the community of Carnavron. It will be cool to come back in a few years and see what it's like!
Giving one of the KAT-7 dishes some love

Many many thanks to Nadeem for taking the time to show us around the site and organizing our trip up! 

Monday, March 18, 2013

SciFest Africa 2013

Last week I tagged along with the SAAO and the OAD to SciFest Africa, South Africa's National Science Festival, in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. The festival hosts thousands and thousands of kids, mostly from the surrounding areas, but also from all over the country. SciFest holds workshops, lectures, exhibits, performances, games and competitions, all related to science, mathematics and technology.

The first thing I can say about SciFest is that it was really fun. Students were ready and excited to engage, and the educators had tons of energy and were incredibly inspiring. Combine this with some really cool science, and the end result was a huge smile on my face all week long.

Here are some of the highlights:

1. The SAAO exhibit. Students would pass by casually or visit in groups, and with the iPads, we explored different planets, constellations, played astronomy games and the kids took the national astronomy quiz to test their knowledge. This was the place where I could engage with kids most and ask questions to understand their ideas about astronomy.
SAAO exhibit
2. Laser show at 9:30am. I actually went twice. It was a great way to get kids (and adults) pumped up for the festival.

3. SAAO workshops on building telescopes and describing the motions of the Solar System. I liked that the students had something to take away with them at the end of the workshop to remind themselves of the things they created and learned.

SAAO telescope-building workshop
4. Trip to Alexandria Primary school ~1hour away. Part of SciFest is not just hosting students in the facilities in Grahamstown, but also doing outreach in the surrounding area. Several of us tagged along to see Steve Sherman from the Living Maths program at the Cape Town Science Centre do his exciting routine to get kids engaged with mathematics.
Steve Sherman from Living Maths doing a brain teaser exercise with students from Alexandria Primary School

OAD director Kevin Govender inspiring young minds at Alexandria Primary School
5. Talk by special guest Prof. James Gates from the University of Maryland. Dr. Gates is known for his work in string theory and now serves on President Barack Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Several years ago, however, when his children attended my alma mater, he spoke several times to my high school physics classes about being a scientist. Several years later, he visited to Haverford to speak about his work in string theory. So this was my fourth or fifth time hearing Dr. Gates, and it was great to hear how his research has progressed over the years. It was also cool to reflect on how my own relationship to science has been extremely different every time I've heard him speak. (I'm kicking myself now because I didn't ask for a picture!)

6. Making friends with other wonderful astronomy educators. It became immediately apparent that SciFest is not just an annual festival, but the meeting of a huge network of science educators that function more as a family than a group of colleagues. I feel so grateful to be welcome into that family for the short time I was there.
With a group of other science educators in front of the local Grahamstown hangout
7. Road trip back to Cape Town with the OAD gang. 10+ hours from Grahamstown to Cape Town with OAD director Kevin Govender and project officer J.C. Mauduit, chatting about astronomy, development, learning and life, with some great stops along the way.
The road trip gang above Storms River
In front of the tallest bungee bridge in the world. Again, no way would I jump, but it was cool seeing others do it!
One of many jumping pictures. Wilderness, Western Cape
Almost home, welcomed by the Western Cape sunset
Now I'm back in Cape Town for a week and then I'm off to Ethiopia! It's going to be tough to say goodbye to this place and the fantastic group of people that have made my experience here so meaningful. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

South Africa Cross-Country Trip Part II

[See Part I for tales of the first stage of this journey. This is going to be a long post, with a lot of info and not as many pictures as I would have liked. Apologies.] 

The second part of my trip differed from the first in that I went from creating my own schedule and methods of outreach to visiting many established centers of astronomy and science education. With Case's philosophy in mind about going back to the basics for effective science education, I kept a running total of places where technology obviously made a huge impact, and places where great amounts of learning occurred without the help of modern technology.

Stop 5: Durban (but really, just Gateway Mall)
I planned to be in Durban for a few days, but as other plans developed and as my time became more and more limited, I decided I had to cut my time in Durban down to a mere 24 hours, just enough time to see the fabulous KZN Science Center

The center is located in Gateway Mall, supposedly the largest mall in South Africa. It's an interesting location for a science center, as they're able to make science education an option for people who might not be seeking it independently. Parents can drop off their kids to play and learn while they go and do their shopping in peace, for example. In addition to reaching the general public this way, the science center also regularly hosts school groups and has a team that brings materials and activities out to rural areas.

When I visited the center, there were no school groups scheduled, and the staff was generous enough to take me through their astronomy program. The program is still in its developmental stages, and it was cool to see what they were building and also offer some feedback based on my own experiences. The center has labs and classrooms in addition to an open area for exhibits, so there are a variety of ways to engage with students. They also have an inflatable planetarium with a pre-recorded show (created by NASA, by the way) which they sometimes take out into the mall for public outreach and advertisement. Technology: 1, Basics: 0. 

Just like when I visited the Cape Town Science Center, I was again reminded how much I love these kinds of "informal education" settings. Having the space to play while still learning science and critical thinking skills is something essential that these spaces offer and classrooms often cannot.

Stops 6(a, b, c): "The Fishbowl" in Mtunzini, Unizul Science Center in Richards Bay & Sibusiso Esihle Science Centre in Mvelabusha

Part of my reason for leaving Durban early was because I was offered a ride to and a place to stay by Derek Fish, director of the Unizul Science Center in Richards Bay. He and his family were generous enough to host me for 4 days in Mtunzini, just south of Richards Bay, at their home, known best by guests as "the Fishbowl."

Derek is often described as the "heart" or the "king" of South African science centers. After seeing his center in Richards Bay, its clear why. The Unizul Science Center is unlike others in that it is only for school groups and does not generate its income from the general public. Beyond hosting school groups during the day, the center additionally does school visits, and offers workshops for students studying for their high school graduation exams. 

Unizul Science Center, Richards Bay
Building an an annalemic sundial at a nearby school in Richards Bay with Unizul Science Center Staff
The science center runs on a very small budget, mostly supplied by the University of Zululand (Unizul), and Derek is using that budget to create resources for the greatest number of children possible. He said to me, "If I had an option of creating a good, high-tech activity for one kid or a more cost effective activity for 10 kids, I would choose the second one every time." With this mentality, you can see where the success of this center comes from. Many things in the center are made from recycled goods and many exhibits are "hand-me-downs" from larger centers around the world. While this means that the exhibits look a bit run-down, or "well-loved," kids don't seem to notice or care. +1 for Basics. Technology: 1, Basics: 1.

Some science centers find their success from huge budgets and large floor space (see my experience in Johannesburg below), but this one thrives without those things. What makes this center is not computer screens or flashy interactive video games or shiny new exhibits, but instead people like Derek who bring science to life. And you can see that it works. Watching these kids enjoy the science show and being led through the activities on the floor, you could tell that they were learning and simultaneously having a great time. 

The next day, I went with Derek to Mvelabusha, a very rural area several hours north of Richards Bay, that was celebrating the grand opening of the Sibusiso Esihle Science Center. The Science Center was small -- just a single room converted from the town's old tavern -- but was filled with potential. For now, they're borrowing exhibits from the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, but hopefully more permanent exhibits can be purchased soon. 

The opening event attracted local government officials, educators, and students from over a dozen nearby schools. The event included numerous speeches, performances by school groups, Derek's famous science show on the physics of sound, and even a talk by a REAL AMERICAN ASTRONOMER (me, incidentally). 
High school boys choir performing at the opening of the Sibusiso Esihle Science Center in Mvelabusha
Student dance performance
Science show by Derek Fish on the physics of sound, translated into Zulu
A talk by an American astronomer (me), translated into Zulu
Again, while this center didn't have too much in the way of material goods, you could tell that the heart and dedication of the people there will be what makes this space thrive as an educational and inspirational space.  +1 for Basics. Technology:1, Basics: 2.

The rest of the weekend was spent with the Fish family, who generously showed me around the lovely Mtunzini beaches and nearby forests. It was a wonderful weekend, and I am so grateful for their hospitality!

Thank you to the Fish family for hosting me in Mtunzini!
Stop 7: Johannesburg, etc.
I spent my final few days of this trip in Johannesburg, described to me either as a"big, bad, dirty city" or as "the greatest city on Earth." I don't think I was there long enough to make a clear judgement either way, but I was able to see most of what they have to offer in terms of science education. Most of my activities were organized by the science awareness sector of SAASTA (South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement), based at the Johannesburg Observatory. 

The first day, we took a trip out to Hammanskraal, a rural community several hours away from Jo'burg. We arrived late, preventing us from doing a full program, but I did have the chance to have conversations with students about astronomy. While the students were enthusiastic to chat about astronomy, their prior knowledge was practically nonexistent. Even though they were in grades 11 and 12, they often described stars as "fixed points of light in the sky, only created at night" and planets as "the layers protecting Earth" or "where life exists." One student, when asked how many moons the Earth had, said "About 6? Full, half, crescent..." So while they're making observations about the Universe, they have not received formal education on, nor been pushed to think critically about astronomy.

The presence of the inflatable planetarium and later on the telescopes for our star party attracted hoards and hoards of people from the community. While they might not have had any previous knowledge about the object we showed them, the community members were still enthralled by the experience of looking though the telescope. In this way, the technology itself was the attraction and the inspiration.  +1 for Technology. Technology: 2, Basics: 2.
Star party with the Hamanskraal community (it's hard to take out a camera without  teenagers wanting to pose)
The following day, we went to Science Unlimited, a three-day science festival in Johannesburg. I was only there for a few hours, and there weren't very many astronomy-related exhibits, but it was still interesting to see how kids were responding to the science shows, lectures and exhibits. Basic puzzles and science projects were enough to unite students from different schools and have them collaborate to solve science problems together. No screens needed.  +1 for Basics. Technology: 2, Basics: 3.
Science Unlimited festival , Johannesburg
Science Unlimited festival, Johannesburg
In my last full day in Jo'burg, I visited the Johannesburg Planetarium, which was hosting a school group for an interactive lesson. During the show, they used the technological capabilities of the Planetarium to explain scale sizes, seasons and space travel in ways that were easily digestible while still being scientifically correct. 
Johannesburg Planetarium

This year, I have been confronted with several examples of poorly-taught astronomy, most commonly related to scale size. Because the Solar System is so big, and so full of empty space, it's easy to discount scale size when teaching astronomy. There are countless bad examples and only a few good examples that show scale size well. Distances to scale are even more difficult to explain. What I liked about the Planetarium was the ability to show both size and distance to scale correctly so that kids could fully grasp these concepts. +1 for Technology. Technology: 3, Basics: 3.

After the Planetarium, I spent the afternoon at the SciBono Science Center, which was perhaps the complete and polar opposite of Unizul. Everything in the 5-story science center was brand new, shiny and often electronic. There were tons of interactive games ranging in topics from gravity on other planets to the science of soccer.  I can't lie, it was awesome. Transporting virtually into outer space or pretending to fly a fighter jet were really fun, while still being educational. +1 for Technology. Technology: 4, Basics: 3But without any concrete evidence, its hard to say if kids actually learn more or learn better with the help of technology like this. 

SciBono Science Ccenter , Johannesburg

In the flight simulator at the SciBono Science Center, Johannesburg
Final count: Basics: 3 , Technology: 4. But considering the fact that spending less money is always better, this adds 1 to Basics and making the REAL final score a tie at Basics: 3, Technology: 4. This leaves me utterly undecided on the issue.  Feedback/opinions welcome -- I'd be interested to know what people think. 

What's up next: a little more time in Cape Town, SciFest in Grahamstown, and then off to ETHIOPIA later on in March!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

South Africa Cross Country Trip Part I

I've been back in Cape Town now for a few days, and am still processing this grand and wonderful adventure. For the past two weeks, I've traveled across South Africa (see map from previous post), chatting with kids and educators, visiting schools, science centers, planetariums and observatories. I've learned so much that I think I'll need to divide my account of this journey into two posts.

First Stop: Wilderness
Known for its gorgeous forests and long white sand beaches, Wilderness is home not just to stunning landscapes and wildlife, but also to Case Rijsdijk, one of the original astronomy educators in South Africa. Among his many accomplishments, Case pioneered the Science Education Initiative (SEI) at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), developed the "Friends of the Universe" program that included a traveling StarBus which took materials and activities to remote areas, and is a regular contributor to South Africa's annual SciFest (which I'll be attending next week!).

During my day in Wilderness, I spoke with Case about his experiences in astronomy education, and he showed me many of the resources that he developed in his time at the SAAO. He is best known for creating highly educational and interactive activities out of very basic materials (see his famous article "Doing it Without Electrons: Innovative Resources for Promoting Astronomy and Science in a Developing Country"). One of my favorite activities prompted students to calculate the distance to Alpha Centauri to an order of magnitude using only a piece of paper with a greased spot in the middle, a light bulb, and the inverse square law.

Working with Case, I was challenged to go back to the basics and think outside of my notions of needing technology for kids to learn science effectively. What can kids build to teach themselves science? How, as educators, can we help them do that? In an age where skills like computer programming are becoming more and more valued, how can we use easily accessible and affordable materials to teach the same critical thinking skills that can then be applied to huge machines later on?

I'm glad that I stopped here first, as these were questions that inspired my thinking for the duration of this trip.
With Case Rijsdijk, highly experienced astronomy educator, in front of the Wilderness wilderness.
The stunning and never-ending Wilderness beach
Stop 2: Day off in Storms River
The following day, I continued along the Garden Route to Storms River, best known by tourists as home to the world's tallest bungee jump bridge. Obviously, I did not attempt that one. I recall a certain project in Ms. Winkler's AP physics class tying a Barbie doll to rubber bands and dropping her from the top of the Blake High School spiral staircase to measure the spring coefficient of said rubber bands. Watching Barbie's head collide with the ground several times made me vow to never bungee jump myself.

In any case, I did spend my time in Storm River taking a day "off" from astronomy education and appreciating the fantastic beauty of the area. I went for a hike in the national park with some women staying at my hostel, and we encountered this phenomenal waterfall directly facing the sea. Video proof of me not being too wimpy and doing something slightly adventurous (sorry its sideways):

I was also in Storms River as asteroid DA14 passed by Earth within the orbits of our geosynchronous satellites. However, clouds came between me and the asteroid and I was not able to observe it as it passed. Luckily, a few hours later, the clouds passed, and I was able to see the magnificent skies of Storms River. Thanks to the SAAO and the OAD, I took this trip with a Celestron FirstScope Telescope -- a lightweight, 3"-aperture, table-top Dobsonion with up to 75x magnification. This telescope is much better than the Galileoscope I traveled with before, and if I ever invest in a small 'scope, this will be the one.
Again, my camera is not much to write home about, but here you can see the Southern Cross above a window at my hostel and some minor details of the Milky Way.

Stop 3: A mandatory overnight in Port Elizabeth
This stop is hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that I took out the trusty telescope again and made friends with some sound engineers from Cape Town by showing them Jupiter and the Orion Nebula. Despite Port Elizabeth being the 14th largest city in South Africa (with a population size comparable to that of Madison, Wisconsin), the skies were surprisingly clear and the Milky Way was still visible. This is different from the east coast of the US where the lights from the cities and suburbs spill out such that there are hardly any places left to see the Milky Way.

Stop 4: Bulungula
I'd heard about Bulungula separately from several different friends in South Africa, with one person even saying, "It's my favorite place in the world. Not in South Africa, not in Africa. The world." So how could I not go?

The link is provided, but in summary, the Bulungula Lodge was created with the Nqileni village and its people in mind. The founders of the lodge wanted to create economic opportunities for people in this tiny seaside village on the Wild Coast without damaging or changing their way of life. The result is this wonderful lodge that is fully incorporated into village life. As a sign in the lodge said, "You are not a guest of the Bulungula lodge, but of the Nqileni Village." The village itself owns 40% of the lodge and is constantly creating new programs for the visitors, including guided hikes, tours, fishing lessons and so on.

I was only there for two nights, unfortunately, and didn't get to do as much as I would have liked. I had time enough just to explore the area myself and take a quick unstructured hike with another lodge guest following only the coastline and a very savvy Labrador retriever.
Duduma the dog, great companion, and excellent guide
Secluded beach occupied only by cows

Bulungula at sunset

The highlight of my time in Bulungula was the day that I took out the 'scope while tons of kids were hanging around the lodge after school. Since it was daytime, we could only observe the moon and some far-away trees, but the kids still found it exciting, I think. Another short clip:

While not many of them understood English, and I absolutely could not understand their Xhosa, we managed just by pointing and looking and giggling. After a while, they also became interested in the telescope itself and started looking into the telescope at the mirror inside, which, of course, induced more giggling. It was a surreal moment, being with these kids, watching them watch the moon, and having flashbacks to writing my Watson proposal when moments like these were just in my imagination.
* -- * -- *

That's it for Part I. Stay tuned for Part II: Durban, Richards Bay and Johannesburg, in which little Maya learns about astronomy education from people working at some of the greatest science education centers in South Africa.