Monday, June 3, 2013

New Zealand Updates, pt II

Better get this update out before too much else happens!

I arrived in Wellington just over three weeks ago, and again have accomplished a lot in a very short amount of time, mostly due to the wonderful and welcoming astronomy education community in New Zealand.

My first stop in Wellington was the Carter Observatory, located at the top of Wellington's hilly botanical gardens. Carter, which was once a functioning observatory, now houses an astronomy museum and planetarium. It's a small space, but it covers absolutely all of the bases. There are exhibits on standard astronomy -- the history of the Universe, galaxies, stars, black holes, planets, etc. -- as well as space travel and the ISS, local New Zealand professional astronomy, and Maori astronomy, which is incorporated into just about every exhibit. The planetarium is also New Zealand-centric, with some shows and graphics specifically designed and illustrated to incorporate Maori legends into modern astronomy. By far, Carter is the most holistic and inclusive local astornomy education center I've seen, and the kids I saw running around were clearly having a blast.

Carter Observatory, Wellington
Sun exhibit including a Maori legend about warrior Maui taming the Sun. In this interactive exhibit, you, too can pull back on the great Sun, Te Ra. Carter Observatory, Wellington.

Exhibit about the Big Bang (right) in parallel with Maori creation story (left). Carter Observatory, Wellington.
International Space Station Exhibit. Carter Observatory, Wellington.
Later in the week, I met up with Ron Fisher, who runs his own portable planetarium business called the Cosmodome. With Ron, I saw hundreds of kids ages 5-11 interact with astronomy, and learned that within the context of the Cosmodome, they found the following things most interesting:

1. Seeing how stars connected into constellations and seeing the constellation figures appear on top.
2. Zooming in on certain objects in the sky. Especially planets. Especially Saturn.
3. Seeing how the moon changes shape and position from night to night.
4. Watching time speed up and the stars move around us.
5. Traveling "through the Universe" with a short clip Ron had with images of galaxies.

On a few occasions, I did some follow-up with classes after their Cosmodome session, and the students were often antsy with questions and ideas. I realized from their enthusiasm that the point of a place like a planetarium is not so much the teaching of information, but instead more about the experience itself. Since the kids are young, and it's hard to teach scientific facts in a short amount of time, I don't believe that kids can really learn science in a setting like the Cosmodome. Instead, the stories they hear and the things they see can ignite an interest in astronomy that will allow them to persue and develop an interest in astronomy afterwards.
Inside the Cosmodome, looking at Matariki (the Pleiades) which marks the Maori New Year.
After a week in Wellington, I took a short trip back to the South Island to Nelson, a small town that's doing big things with astronomy education. A lot of this starts with Jenny Pollock, a secondary science teacher who is developing an Earth and Space Science curriculum that is starting to be used nation-wide. I sat in on a few of her astronomy classes at Nelson Girls College, and spoke with the students about what they're learning in Jenny's class. They were especially curious about black holes and the evolution of stars. 

While in Nelson, I also made a few trips to Victory Primary School to meet with Stirling Chatham, better known by his students as "Mr. Science." Stirling works with students in all grade levels, teaching science with fun, interactive and hands-on projects. In addition to his regular activities, including slime-making and using a bird puppet called Einstein to explain science to younger kids, together we had some conversations with his students about astronomy. Stirling filmed some of the conversations, and I hope to be able edit and upload them soon so I can post them here.

My crush on Victory Primary School became apparent to all within an hour of my arrival. I'm finding that I'm learning a lot in New Zealand mainly by seeing schools and systems that work. Victory is a clear example of this. I'm not saying that the school is without issues or difficult students, but instead it is obvious that they are taking an "all hands on deck" approach to education. Victory is extremely community and family oriented, and recognizes and works with every child's strengths and needs. It was refreshing to see this holistic approach to education in a very diverse community as well, with 1/3 of the students recent immigrants mostly from Southeast Asia, 1/3 of Maori/Pasifika origin and 1/3 of European-New Zealand origin. The communal enthusiasm for learning and working together is felt all over the school, from the classrooms to the playground to the joyous and warm staff room. It was a pleasure to work with them, and I learned a lot from a school that leads by such a positive example.

Kids at Victory Primary School drawing the Universe.
Gorgeous Nelson sunset
After a few days in Nelson, I made it back to Wellington, this time taking the Interislander Ferry, catching some gorgeous views of the Marlborough Sounds and the Cook Straight.
Cook Straight Interislander Ferry ride.
Cook Straight Interislander Ferry ride.
In the past week in Wellington, I've met even more educators and adults doing wonderful things in astronomy education. Chris Monigatti is a science teacher at Tawa College just north of Wellington, and has established an astronomy club at his school. He is also training four students to participate in the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which will take place in Greece this July. (I'm actually trying to go myself as a sort of Watson culmination. Stay tuned.) 

Helping Chris with the Olympiad students is Haritina Mogosanu, a voraciously passionate astronomy educator and "Star-yteller." Although she is not a professional astronomer herself, it's clear that Hari is passionate about spreading the wonders of astronomy with children and adults alike, and using it as a tool to unite people and show a shared humanity that exists in stories of our Universe.

I also met with Marilyn Head, who was actually my first point of contact in New Zealand when I was beginning the Watson application over two years ago. Marilyn, too, does not work directly in astronomy, but has been a driving force in the astronomy education community in New Zealand for a long time, acting as the NZ point of contact for IYA2009 and taking on many independent astronomy projects in her free time. One of these projects was her Galaxy publication, an astronomy magazine for kids complete with cartoon strips, puzzles and projects.

Marilyn Head with a stack of Galaxy astronomy mags for kids.
 Also this week, I visited the Te Papa National Museum, and learned more about the national history and culture of New Zealand. It's a stunning museum, with lots to explore from art and music to history to earth sciences. I managed to cover most of it in a day, but it would be great to go back and explore more.

Yesterday, I made a trip out to Stonehenge Aotearoa in the Wairarapa with Chris Monigatti from Tawa College. Only 90 minutes away from Wellington, this stone circle celebrates astronomy in antiquity and explores the intersections between astronomical cultures globally. It was a stunning sight and clearly a labor of love. I learned a lot from listening to creator Richard Hall give a tour of the stone circle and tell stories of its origins and contexts in the Southern Hemisphere.

Stonehenge, Aotearoa
In front of Stonehenge, Aotearoa with creator Richard Hall.
In case you haven't noticed this trend by now, I'm realizing more and more that my project is in fact more about adults and less about children. Children, remarkably, are proving to be fairly constant from place to place. Their foundation of knowledge and the stories they know related to astronomy are obviously dependent on location, culture and educational circumstance. However, regardless of where I've been, children have extremely similar questions, curiosities and insights. In this way, it's the adults I've learned the most from. It's the creative educators, scientists and global thinkers that have taught me the most important lessons from this year. It is through their guidance and their experience that I am learning to become a more effective and inspiring astronomy educator. 

This week, I'll leave Wellington and continue my travels around the North Island. It will be sad to say goodbye to this gorgeous, hilly city on the water, especially since I've been staying in such a cozy and wonderful home (actually with my friend Jaime who I met in running club in Nepal!). I know it's time to leave, though, and continue to see more. 
Lovely Wellington.
Thanks for reading, and I hope to be able to update more regularly!