Friday, July 26, 2013

Auckland, New Zealand

[Wrote this two weeks ago, but have been searching for a computer to finish this post and include pictures since then. Now finally posting in an internet cafe in Athens, Greece. Updates on Greece will have to wait for another time...]

July 15, 2013:
I've been in and around Auckland for the past three-four weeks as my final stop in New Zealand. There's been a ton going on, in astronomy education and otherwise, but it's been great to be busy and learning a lot.
Auckland skyline at sunset
Through Couch Surfing, I met a science teacher at St. Peter's College, a prestigious all-boys Catholic prep school. He happened to be teaching astronomy-related topics in class during my first week in Auckland and invited me to join those classes. The most interesting thing I observed was during a class that was piloting an iPad-in-the-classroom program where every student has their own iPad.

The class was learning about the seasons, and the students were given a list of questions to answer related to that topic. They were allowed to use any of the following resources to answer these questions: 1) Their textbook, which had a specific section on the topic, 2) the iPads, and 3) different lights and sports balls to represent the Sun, Earth and Moon. Initially, every child chose the iPad, and right away cut and paste the exact questions into Google. They then found the answers confusing, and either kept looking for good sites, or moved on to the other resources. I observed that the iPads were distracting, and actually did a very poor job as a research tool, unless directed to specific sites and resources by the teacher. Nonetheless, every student used it as their default tool. I've seen in New Zealand several times that iPads in the classroom are becoming a selling point to families to show that the school is technologically advanced and the students have better learning opportunities. But I'm still not sold that these kinds of tools actually enhance learning.

My main reason for coming to Auckland was to work with the Stardome Observatory, which is part astronomy museum, part planetarium and part actual observatory. During the weekdays, they have numerous school visits, and in the evenings, they have planetarium shows targeting specific age groups of children and adults alike.
Stardome Observatory
June and July have been focused on celebrating Matariki, the Maori New Year, and my first trip to Stardome was for a Matariki Dawn Festival. The public came out in the very early to spot the constellation Matariki (Pleiades) itself before sunrise, and then the morning was filled with talks, performances, planetarium shows, traditional kite-making, and activities for kids like face-painting and astronomy craft projects. I was thrilled to see an astronomy center working with the community to host a cultural festival. Science and culture/tradition/religion are often thought of as distinct, and I was pleased to see them coming together seamlessly.

Crafts and face-painting at Matariki celebration at the Stardome Observatory. I pitched in by doing a lot of face-painting too -- mostly shooting stars, rockets and aliens.
I spent the following week observing school groups at Stardome, most of which had requested information and shows about Matariki. A school visit to Stardome includes a pre-recorded Planetarium Show, a tour of the night sky in the Planetarium, time to look around the exhibits in the hall, and a classroom session where they can go more in depth about the topic covered inside the Planetarium. This holistic and varied approach engages with students and educators on multiple levels so that kids can take away both the cool and fun experience of being inside a planetarium while still leaving with some scientific information that sticks.
Classroom visits to the Stardome Observatory. The student in gold is demonstrating being the Sun. Soon there will be an Earth in blue and a Moon in silver, all demonstrating orbit and rotation.
Stardome also hosts the Auckland Astronomical Society, which is the largest and most diverse amateur group I've seen in New Zealand. Whether you are just getting into astronomy with no prior knowledge, or have your own telescope and want to do observations, or are more interested in theoretical academic astrophysics, the society has something to offer. They even have monthly Junior Member meetings, where kids in the society have a night dedicated just for them. The society also does some outreach in the community, bringing telescopes to events or schools.

One of these such events was a family-friendly Matariki evening celebration. There were different musical performances, and a small lantern parade where kids and their families showed off paper lanterns they made for the celebration. There were too many clouds to set up telescopes as representatives from the society had hoped, but in times where the clouds parted, we stood outside with a laser pointer, showing different constellations, planets, and how to find South using the Southern Cross.
Kids showing off their homemade lanterns at the Matariki festival.
I also traveled a few hours north to the town of Whangarei to visit the Northland Astronomical Society's observatory and planetarium. Twice a month, they host events for the public, and I was lucky enough to get there on a night that was clear and teeming with visitors, including lots of kids. For a small group with only ~35 members, the Northland Astronomical Society has tons of resources, including an old projector that used to belong to the Carter Observatory in Wellington, several telescopes and a teaching room for lectures and discussion. And even with the town of Whangarei nearby, the skies were clear and the Milky Way was perfectly visible.
Guests piling into the small Whangarei planetarium. There were so many people that some were standing at the back or even outside just listening. Even though it was crowded, the visitors -- especially the kids -- seemed to enjoy what the Norhland Astronomical Society had to offer.  
View of the Milky Way above Whangarei. (Not the best quality photo-- need to do some post-processing. But again, posting from an Athens internet cafe where they're not even technologically advanced enough to have A/C.)
Telescope viewing at the Northland Astronomical Society open night.

Yet again, it's clear that the amateur astronomy community in New Zealand is truly the driving force behind astronomy education in the country. And because amateur astronomers are members of the public themselves, typically without academic degrees in science, I find that they know how to communicate with the public in ways that clear and interesting.

While in Auckland, I also met with Mark Mackay from a group called Kiwi Space, a small organization that is looking to raise interest and awareness in space science in New Zealand. The organization is still new, and Mark and I discussed ways to get people involved and the public interested. It's a good question, and one that I think we as astronomers should reflect on more often. It's clear to us why astronomy and space is fascinating, but why is it something that everyone should care about and invest in? What aspects are the most interesting, and how can we share them in engaging ways that will last longer than a one-time event?

In addition to doing all of this astronomy education and learning "heaps," as the Kiwis say, I've also been taking time to travel around a bit and just appreciate the natural beauty of this stunning country. a three day trip around the Coromandel Peninsula was especially amazing, with gorgeous views of beaches and mountainsides at every bend. And so, I finish off with some final photos:
Sunset on the Coromandel Peninsula
Dark skies on a clear night at last! The Milky Way above the Coromandel (and a flashlight on in the foreground).
Even on "vacation" I'm finding astronomy everywhere! This was an astronomy B&B we found while driving through the Coromandel. They're closed for winter, but one of the owners still took time to show me around. I'd love to come back and stay another time!
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
Now it's off to Greece for my final Watson adventure!! Huge and special thanks to the Hadfield family (no relation to astronaut Chris Hadfield) in Auckland who hosted me and allowed me to house-sit their beautiful and cozy home while they traveled. It's been so nice to have a sunny and welcoming place to settle for a few weeks!

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