Tuesday, November 19, 2013

QR4 / Final Report

The Watson Fellowship is phenomenal since, by definition, it is a "non-academic" fellowship. You don't need to produce results, conduct formal surveys or come to any sweeping conclusions about what you explored in the year. They do ask for a final "long letter home" similar to the other quarterly reports I've posted here. Below is most of that report, although some has been cut out to stay concise. 

Dear Watson HQ,

Here we go – the final report. I just read over all my previous quarterly reports and your responses and tried to absorb the emotions from each of the various stages of travel. The small achievements, the insights, the moments of feeling stuck, the human beings and situations placed in my path that gave my year direction and meaning, for better or worse. What a gift it’s been!

I know that I’ve said it a million times, but I say sincerely and deeply – thank you. This journey has solidified many things I know about about myself and the world, mostly that those things are never solid at all. Without your belief in me and without your support throughout the year, it just wouldn’t have been possible. So without further ado…

Report from the Fourth Quarter:

I spent the majority of my fourth quarter in New Zealand, a country where I felt inspired by the resources of the education system and positively overwhelmed by the hospitality of the astronomy community. My main reason for visiting New Zealand was to explore the intersection between a high-achieving science education and traditional Maori cultural beliefs about the Universe.

As I noted in my Q3 report, I felt that I “hit the ground running” in Christchurch because of the openness and enthusiasm from people committed to making my project come to life. This felt so refreshing after moments in the year that felt stagnant, that during my three months in New Zealand, I sometimes had to re-focus my vision and goals towards what I wanted from my project, as opposed to what others wanted from me.

The astronomy community in New Zealand is comprised mostly of hobby or “amateur” astronomers... Their passion and knowledge for the subject is striking, especially as many of them are self-taught. They seemed equally fascinated with me, since as a young woman interested in astronomy, I struck them as a bit of an anomaly. They invited me to their society meetings, their clubhouses and to see their personal telescopes. They shared their contacts across the country with me and gave endless suggestions for whom I should visit next.

While I continued to work with these communities throughout my stay in New Zealand, I pushed myself to enter astronomical spaces that are specifically designed for children, as well as spaces that emphasize Maori culture. The best moments happened when these places effortlessly overlapped. Two of New Zealand’s major astronomy education centers, Carter Observatory in Wellington and Stardome Observatory and Planetarium in Auckland, showcased exhibits and events about Maori and Pasifika astronomy. At Carter, for example, there is an exhibit that describes the Big Bang in parallel with the Maori creation story.

It was refreshing to see “scientific” astronomy working alongside “cultural” astronomy and even more invigorating to see that this was an approach that helped children engage with our Universe on multiple levels. It makes sense to kids that there are many stories that explain our Universe, and this plurality of ideas allows for their imaginations to construct new stories. Making things up and imagining different realities is really at the heart of why I love and connect so much with astronomy after all. The creativity to push an idea to something previously unimaginable – that’s what science is at its core.

The theme of my time in New Zealand starting in about mid-May was Matariki, the Maori New Year and also the Maori name for the Pleiades star cluster. I found it fascinating that there were many different explanations for what Matariki is and how the holiday is celebrated. The telling and re-telling of a story across many generations by many different people with different histories will inevitably change the details and the perspective of that story. There is a lot of debate and sometimes anger at how people teach Matariki incorrectly and how children hear a washed out Euro-centric version, which does injustice to an already oppressed culture. Regardless of the variations, however, I heard some dialogue about Matariki in almost every classroom, observatory and planetarium I visited from late May to early July. And without a doubt, I loved that every child I spoke with instantly recognized the bluish star cluster as a part of their national history and therefore as a part of themselves.

In New Zealand, I was also greatly inspired by schools and how they function. In other times during my Watson year, the schools I visited were downright depressing with a dearth of educational and human resources to create effective learning spaces. My mother, who is a teacher, always says that the condition of a school sends a message to students immediately about their self-worth in the eyes of their community and society. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but notice that New Zealand was doing a fairly good job sending a positive message to its children. Victory Primary School in the town of Nelson was doing an especially beautiful job: the school infrastructure, and also the stable support from educators and the intentional, inclusive community-based school philosophy made Victory my favorite school from the whole year. For a fairly diverse community, too, it was beautiful to see a plurality of needs being met and cared for.

But don’t worry, Watson folks! My time in New Zealand was well balanced in terms of achieving project goals, challenging myself and having some fun. New Zealand’s scenery is unbelievably stunning, and I took time to explore the country’s landscapes. Additionally, I improved my skills in bikram yoga, chocolate-chip-oat-espresso-cookie-making, hitchhiking, night photography, express-friendship and icey-water-jumps.

By mid-July, it was time to pack up and go for one final adventure. My plans for the last chunk of my year changed so many times due to shifting contacts and feasibility, but I can happily report that going to Greece for my final 3.5 weeks was absolutely the right decision. After my contact in Indonesia gave me the final “this isn’t a good time” message, I was feeling lost and unsure of what to do next. Then I met a teacher in New Zealand who was preparing a team of students for the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics, to take place in Volos, Greece, July 29 – August 5, and then everything clicked into place.

After a week or so exploring Athens and a few Greek islands, I arrived at the Olympiad geared up and ready for one last astronomy education adventure. It was the perfect way to end my year. These kids were an inspiration. They trained, raised funds, and took time away from school to travel for the sole purpose of sitting through astronomy examinations and being in community with other young astronomers.

On top of all of this, many of them are exceptionally self-aware and articulate. While I may not consider them “children” really, since they were between 14 and 18 years old, they are just on the cusp of adulthood, with all of their childhood still fresh in their memories and all of the anticipation for what’s to come still exciting and unclear.

I was technically a journalist for the event, which allowed me the time to interview teams individually. Some of them said things that will stay with me forever. Most memorably, one of the participants from India, in explaining why he loves astronomy, said:

“In [some sciences] you create an experiment. You... judge the outcomes and make predictions. But in astronomy the experiment is always going on. You cannot change anything. You just have to observe whatever it is that nature provides you with.

Their love for astronomy was unflappable. So, inevitably, we bonded. The best times were at night, when regardless of how late it was, how exhausted they were, how long they’d sat in exams that day, all they wanted to do was look up at the stars in the dark mountain skies. We pointed out constellations, took photos, counted shooting stars, told stories and basked under the Milky Way.

Building relationships with these students from all over the world, who were so enamored with astronomy, gave my year a new level of meaning and perspective. After moments during the year when I contemplated the possibility that maybe kids don’t care about astronomy and maybe they don’t need to, it was amazing to bond with young people who had found as much meaning in astronomy as I have. It reinforced that what I’m doing does have value and is the right avenue for me as I move into my next stage of life. 

Thoughts on the year and beyond:

When I reflect on the year as a whole, to be honest, it blurs in my memory. This has been the scariest thing about being home. Not that the transition has been difficult, but that it’s been too easy. Did the last 12 months really just happen? Or do my memories of people and places belong to someone else, like something seen on TV or read in a good travel magazine? Even when I watch my “One Second Per Day” video that I showed at the conference or read my journals, it goes by too fast.

Instead I try to focus on isolated events, stories, lessons and people. When I focus on those things specifically, the memory spreads through me with an amount of certainty and authenticity that I recognize as truth. These are the stories I find myself telling and re-telling, because they were the most profound and taught me the lessons that I needed most in a moment. Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re not often project related.

There are many stories that I’m still processing and many relationships and conversations that have yet to be unpacked. Each teaches me how I interact with people in the world, and how the world’s people interact with each other.

This year, I’ve learned that through and through, my project is me. By which I mean that what I care about, what my life’s direction is, is based in the themes I explored this year.  I love astronomy. I love that it can be a tool to exercise our brain to stretch any boundary that we find limiting. I love that it’s something that everyone can experience deeply, regardless of nationality, age or gender, because as human beings, we are inevitably affected by the sun, the moon, the seasons, and have undoubtedly asked ourselves the question, “What’s out there?” I love that it’s both a science we can know with some amount of certainty, and also a bottomless mystery, so our imaginations will never be satisfied. And I love that children posses the ability to know all of this with the clarity, enthusiasm and elegance that any adult could ever hope to. 

When I share this love, especially when I speak it out loud, I’m at my most complete, my most joyful. Even in my four minutes at the Watson conference, doing the same “tour of the Universe” I did with students all year, I felt my whole person coming alive. One thing that stuck with me from those magical three days at the conference was just this – that instead of worrying about how we should operate in the world, my fellow fellows are doing things that make them joyful, and in spreading that joy, that’s what’s making the world a better place.

I just hope that I won’t forget that feeling or lose the momentum from these past adventures. But armed with a year full of reinforcing experience, and a global network of mentors and friends, I doubt that I will.

Clear skies and eternal gratitude,

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