by Fikiswa Majola

In February this year I got to travel to Matatiele in the province of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. There I visited a number of schools doing astronomy outreach- giving presentations and doing activities with the earth ball and also motivating the learners to study science. After one presentation, a lady from the Education Department District Office came to me and brought one of the girls that was in the presentation- the young lady, who is currently in grade 11 (second-last year of high school), told me that she had always wanted to be a Land Surveyor but after my presentation she fell in love with astronomy and wants to pursue is as a career. She now wants be an astronomer.

Now, with this kind of job you travel a lot, you are hardly ever at home and would be away from days on end- it can get exhausting. Getting feedback like makes everything worth it. You are suddenly re-ernergised and you want, more than ever, to keep doing because converting even just one is worth everything. It's a job well done.

This blog entry is me sharing my experiences on being involved in astronomy awareness, outreach and science communication in south africa. How I got involved, what I have found works well, and what I think we can do to better expand our reach.

My journey started in 2007 when I started working at the Cape Town Science Centre. I was young, eager and full of energy, and having a father that was a science and mathematics teacher meant I was always willing and happy to “teach” and help people out- I always wanted to share whatever new discoveries I'd heard or read about, whatever current news that was science related, and more than anything I wanted to work with young(er) kids, get them excited about science. It was awesome. I was doing science shows, visiting schools, going on long roadtrips to remote areas in the Western Cape, bringing science to the people. All my science centre outreach work was limited to only the Western Cape, with the exception of attending 2 science festivals outside of the province. And then, IYA happened. That changed my life. As a young girl I was always fascinated by the stars. I spent a lot of time in the Eastern Cape Province when growing up, and skies there are very dark. I remember being fascinated by the LMC and SMC- wondering what those lone clouds in the sky were and why I could only see them at night; and I remember these stars that moved- having no idea things like satellites even existed. This was a long time ago, and unfortunately that is where it had ended. Until IYA.

Cutting a long story short- astronomy became my thing. At one point I would stop by the library for an hour after work, every day, to read an astronomy book I had taken a liking to. It was a reference book so I couldn't take it out, and I was happy to sit in the library and read through. It has really become my thing. I was even know as the astronomy person at work. Taking time to link physics and chemistry to astronomy, and even adapting our science shows to include astronomy demonstrations and references.

In 2011 I moved to the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory and joined them as a Science Communicator. I would be talking astronomy ALL THE TIME! It was almost like a dream come true. The HartRAO Science Awareness team worked closely with the outreach staff of SAAO and under the banner Astronomy SA in various outreach programmes.

Our main tools of communicating the astronomy have been an inflatible planetarium, Earth balls, iPad loaded with astronomy software, quizzes and videos, workshops, solar system cans and a scale model of the solar system, water rockets, telescpes, various astronomy presentations, and the list goes on. The main aim of all of these is to inspire people to like astronomy and to get school learner to pursue science in school.

I have found that the less formal and more hands-on learning works best.

launching rockets

Launching rockets at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory

Getting hands dirty is also loads of fun- whether it is with glue when building telescopes, or getting them soaked and muddy when launching rockets. This is easy for outreach staff to achieve as we don't have to set exams or mark their tests- they open up more to you and what you're teaching. Educators can also achieve this by incorporating less formal, more hand-on lessons.

At HartRAO we also run educator workshops where we show educators different ways in which they can  teach astronomy concepts to their learners. We use material that is easily obtainable (e.g. soda cans) and share our resources with them. We also get the opportunity to facilitate discussion between educators from different schools to share ways in which they teach. In these workshops the main aim is to inspire the educators and show them they can have lots of fun while teaching, and their learners can have a lot of fun while learning. Everybody wins.

Apart from attending science festivals, having visitors at the observatory and educator workshops- I have also been on the road a lot. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a colleague from HartRAO and sometimes as part of a delegation with staff from other science advancement organisations (e.g. Scifest Africa and SAASTA). In the last 24 months I have gone to places I never knew existed, met the most wonderful and passionate people- people that are willing to open their minds to a stranger and welcome the science and the astronomy that you bring. Whether it's launching a water rocket, showing stars in an inflatible planetarium or using a ball to talk about eclipses. It has been a trip, and it has been amazing.

africa map

My astro-travels in the last 24 months.

I have been very fortunate to work at an organisation that has allowed me to exercise my passion for astronomy education, and allowed for all the different collaborations I have been involved in. And this is just one organisation. I would love to see what the map would look like if we included other organisations' outreach plots on it, I'm sure it would have the whole of South Afica covered and a lot of more the neighbouring countries.

Astronomy in South Africa is really booming, and we need to do a lot more awareness of it. The best way to do this is by collaborative effort. The more people and organisations involved, he better and more fruitful the experiences of our learners, educators and visitors will be. Perhaps we need to have an annual Astronomy Festival- doing outreach, workshops, presentations and having astonomers and astronomy students from across the spectrum sharing their work and experiences with future astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. South Africa is fortunate to host the IAU's Office for Development, we are well positioned to make our astronomy education and outreach efforts even bigger.

With astronomy, we definitely CAN make the world a better place!


photoFikiswa Majola: Science junkie, passionate about astronomy and science outreach. She has travelled across the country and Africa to tell anyone who would listen about the beauty of astronomy, its importance in Southern Africa and how to grow up to be an astronomer.


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