Raising young peoples' eyes to the stars

Raising young peoples' eyes to the stars
By Robert Hackwill
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Beating off bears or bringing the secrets of the universe into primary schools; just two of the challenges astronomers face when passing on their knowledge to the next generation of stargazers.


Space, stars, and galaxies. The wonders of the universe can be captivating and studying them is helping us unravel their mysteries. This edition of “Learning World” looks at some projects that are offering classroom experiences that are truly out of this world.

Would you be willing to face freezing temperatures, long dark nights and polar bears in order to pursue your passion? In the remotest part of Norway we meet the students that are doing just that, studying the northern lights

The greatest show on Earth

The island of Spitzbergen, just 1,300 km from the North Pole is home to the world’s most northerly
university, the University Centre in Svalbard , also called UNIS and built in 1993. Every year it hosts 500 students. This year, they come from 44 countries. Some of them have been able to finance their studies in Svalbard through the Erasmus exchange program.

A group of 17 is on its way to the Kjell Henriksen Observatory, at the top of a 520-metre mountain.

Beware bears

After a few theoretical lessons it is time for action.
Before volunteering students need to learn how to use a rifle. They take their task seriously, as they know how dangerous approaching polar bears can be, especially given the observatory’s remote location.

“There’s a very very real risk, if we get a polar bear coming to say hello!” says UNIS student Jack Jenkins.

The students set up the equipment on the observatory’s roofs to study the precise location of auroras.

“The next step is to start the instrument and then take a look at how the calibration goes,” says the Observatory’s Mikko Syrjäsuo.

Back inside the main building, the students start up the instruments they will use to study the aurora borealis – the magical result of particles from the sun striking our atmosphere.

Looking and probing

This observatory is passive. It captures images of the aurora borealis, while another site, the EISCAT radar installation, allows “active” observations in order to really understand this phenomenon..

“You can be the operator. You have to take the operator’s chair,” says UNIS Professor Kjellmar Oksavik. “The most stressful time, when you operate the radar is the start up. So the next thing I want you to have to do now is this, is run this…Standby 57, enter here at 59, and then transmit on the hour,” he says, guiding his students through the process.

“It’s very new, yeah, to make sure it all works properly, yeah, it makes me nervous,” says student Lloyd Woodham.

The 300-tonne radar moves into position with electric motor shrieking and the grind of metal against metal.

“I think the students are really good today, being pushed quite a lot on things they haven’t learned yet, and they have done a really good job of wrestling, trying to figure it out, trying to read the data and see what it could be and so on,” says UNIS Professor Anja Strømme.

The first pictures of events come in from the upper atmosphere.


“It tells you so much about the entire solar-terrestrial system. That’s why I’m here, because it’s a passion. This’ll give me some credits towards my PhD but I don’t really care about the credits, I’m here for the science, for the Northern Lights,” says student Katie Ann Herlingshaw.

Starting stargazers young

Much further South now, in South Africa, some younger students are learning about some of the
universe’s biggest concepts. Can astronomy be a gateway to a scientific future? Some of the teachers here are convinced it can be.

Today, like every Friday, these 20 students participate in picking apart and putting together the solar system as part of the school’s astronomy club. Using a cleverly-designed and easy-to-use tool developed by Universe Awareness– called Universe in a Box – the children’s curious minds are given something to work with.

“I think it’s important because it’s where the sun lies, the stars, the moon, our earth, it’s part of the solar system. Some day maybe we’ll go to the solar system, we’ll go to the universe so we’ll see all the things we are learning about,” says Yanga, who is in Grade 7 at Lwandle primary school in Cape Town.


Feet in the dust, heads in the stars

In 61 countries around the world, the basic concepts of astronomy are taught to children by the Universe Awareness organisation, UNAWE. Buzani Khumalo oversees the workshops in the Cape Town area. In South Africa, schools are often overcrowded and the science curriculums are few and far between.

“Now our learners, they are able to start studying science at a very young age, and that increases their passion for science. We hope that we will now be able to increase the science literacy in our young learners, until their high school level,” he says.

Four hundred kilometers inland into South Africa’s semi-arid desert, known as the Karoo, a cluster of domes resembles an outpost on the moon. This high-tech astronomical research centre is used by astronomers from around the world to observe and study the night sky, something so abstract to us on the ground.

“Should they see a shooting star, they will ask what is this? Why is it there, why are the others not shooting? So naturally it leads to questions, so we have to respond, and by responding you are taking them back to science. You use the principles of physics or mathematics to explain,” says UNAWE’s National Co-ordinator Sivuyile Manxoyi.


Shooting for the moon

Just a few kilometres down from the observation plateau, in the community of Sutherland, life is hard. Unemployment is high, as are alcoholism and crime. Life prospects for youngsters here can be bleak, and the world can feel small.

“We start with the moon, because at their age this is one of the best objects to explain to them because
it’s visible at night and also in the daytime,” says UNAWE’s Outreach and School Projects head Willem Prins, who brings his telescope to Roggeveld Intermediate school. The pupils queue up to take a peek through it.

Astronomy may at first seem light years away from assisting in the practical development of this struggling community. The Universe Awareness team, however, sees the bigger picture.

“The best way to give them that hope is to start at a young age. And to start motivating them by saying that the universe is so big and the possibilities are so big that, as the saying goes, the sky is the limit,” says Prins.


Astrophotography: Bruno Letarte

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