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.
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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. 

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