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!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! Some of the pictures and stories brought me back to my short time in South Africa. The kids I met in Newcastle were so eager to engage and pose and be joyful. The shot of the boys wearing ties and dancing really brings home how it's kind of a different world out there.
    And as for the score (I think you mistyped in your last count - it should be B:4 T:4), it occurs to me that a lot of fundamental concepts are best put across using basic materials - as my Mom says, low-tech solutions. When you technologize things up, concepts can become less transparent and you can lose a down-to-earth quality. A digital watch can impress you with its precision, but a sundial provides a much stronger understanding. You can think about how the sun casts a shadow and really realize that, holy mackerel, WE'RE STANDING ON A GIANT ROTATING SPHERE*. No digital watch or planetarium or whatever can really convince you the same way.
    Where technology can really shine in education is a. proving how cool technology is and b. doing stuff you can't do with simple, transparent, wrap-your-mind-around-the-whole thing demos.
    Does that theory match with what you saw?

    *(or, you know, the sun is rotating around us in a consistent pattern. you decide.)