The Ambassadors Meeting and a Night of Observation

MMAO Ambassador meeting

Today was a big day, from sunrise to sunset. Eliona arrived to my lodge a bit past 7:00 am to engage in a review of the agenda for the ambassador meeting. We printed copies here at the lodge, and by 9:00 am were knee deep sifting through a half dozen suit cases in the OSEO office, the accumulation of years of donations to science education.

For me, it was the first time to witness the incredible array of chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy material that had been brought to this school, most of it untouched for quite some time, if ever. We focused on astronomy, bringing two dozen books to the new observatory library, eye pieces for our growing collection, and telescopes and tripods for testing, mending, and eventual use.
I know how much Chuck wanted for each and every one of these items to be used. He can smile in his ethereal state, knowing it is finally happening.

At 11:30 am Thomas and I went to town to purchase 10 plastic chairs, juice, and biscuits for the Astronomy Ambassadors seminar, and a few office related things. We raced back up the mountain to the observatory just as the first Ambassadors were arriving a few minutes past 1 pm.

The seminar went very well, the observatory the perfect building in which to house such a meeting. It will be impossible to retell all that we discussed and learned, but in general, the agenda was as follows:

  1) General introduction to all in the room by Elineema and Eliona, and a moment of prayer to honor Chuck.

  2) Introduction to Astronomy education by Kai.

  3) Watch a short film about the SALT education program in South Africa, and discuss.

  4) Watch the first 10 minutes of Episode 1 of the new COSMOS series, and discuss.

  5) Introduction to the telescope, with discussion of refractor vs reflector, Dobsonian, Newtonian, and Cassegrain, and the three axis for equatorial mounts. We then engaged in a hands-on effort using spotting scopes and moving the 12″ on its equatorial mount.

  6) We closed with questions and answers and a continued discussion about science education in the classroom.

To this final point, much of the afternoon (2-5:30 pm) was spent not on astronomy, but the challenges of education. I opened by stating that the hardest part of science education is for the teachers themselves to change how they engage the students. They must encourage and support the students asking questions they themselves cannot answer. They must celebrate every time a students raises their hand and baffles the instructor. This totally flips two centuries of colonial classrooms on their heads. Yet, it must happen for the next generation to rise up and do better than the one before.

These teachers are so strictly guided by the national examination review that they feel totally restricted by what is demanded. They have no time to be creative in the classroom, to do anything outside of the norm. Not a one of them has internet or a computer. Some of the schools have no computers at all. Lessons are recorded by hand, filling volumes of books with writing and sketches to copy what is in the shared text books or written on the board.

This is where Elineema stepped in and encouraged each of them to see their job in the classroom as extended by time with the students after class, teaching in a new way through engagement and interaction and collaborative learning.

I asked the question, “Would you rather have students ask questions that you can answer, or questions you have to answer together?” and “Which one of these is a sign of your success?”

Zacharia added a beautiful segment to support this, given what I had shared but more importantly, what he has experienced in the classroom too. He recognized the challenge that lay before them, but emphasized that we can make a change. Elineema provide a passionate plea for the ambassadors to return to their schools and take a new, personal approach to science education.

In my follow-up conversation with Mponda this evening, he said all classes much be taught as science classes, all subjects are a chance to explore and learn beyond the textbook, beyond the blackboard, notebook, and memorization. But without the internet, this is nearly impossible.

In closing, I shared a story I heard on NPR before coming here, that success in college entrance exams has almost no bearing on the success of an individual. In fact, successful entrepreneurs often did poorly on tests, entrance exams, and in traditional classrooms. I asked those present to take special care, to find alternatives for those students who struggle with the norm, for they are likely to become Tanzania’s leaders. Don’t punish them for not conforming to the rules, but help them to learn how they learn and then catapult forward.

The feedback for the day was positive across the board. These instructors had all met and worked with Chuck, Sue, and Mponda many years before, and had been waiting for this moment, for this reunion for as many as a half dozen years. Finally, we came together under the roll-off roof, in the company of a newly assembled library, new chairs, a 32″ TV, laptops, workstations of the likes they have never seen, and telescopes of several shapes and sizes.

For those that could stay, we enjoyed a brief view of the night sky over East Africa and together, we took our first step together toward a better Tanzania.

Our First Visitors and Third Night for Observing

MMAO - First time looking through a telescope!

Last night Mr. Miley and his Form Four class of the Ngongongare Secondary School visited the observatory.

Following Miley’s introduction the observatory and the use of a telescope, I provided a lecture for the 3 axes of the equatorial telescope and the function of the concave and convex mirrors in our primary telescope. I asked the students to calculate the rotational velocity of the Earth, given its circumference and then we moved into conversations about why we cannot feel the Earth spinning as compared to that of, say, riding on a bus or airplane.

We spent some time discussing kinetic energy (the students were well versed in this given their physics class) and how a small object traveling a hit speed can cause as large an impact crater as a large object traveling at a lower speed. I provided some experiments they can perform at the school using thick mud and rocks or a cake pan, flour, and small objects flung at various velocities.

We welcomed the presence of Mr. Marike, a member of the Board of Directors for the Organization for Science, Education, and Observation (OSEO) that is responsible for the management of this observatory. Karibu sana!

An hour before sunset, we observed the waxing crescent Moon. Later, some students from Ailang arrived and we tested our CCD camera again, this time with the RA motor spinning in the correct direction (it has been set to the Northern hemisphere, but was easily rectified with the movement of a jumper on the motherboard –thank you Alan!). We observed Jupiter and Saturn, both through a 40mm eyepiece and the computer screen. Stunning!

Second Night for Observing!

MMAO - second observation night

Last night we engaged our second observing session at the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory, from 7-10 pm. Again, we enjoyed a full house, with what was easily 60 or more students. This time both boys and girls from the Ailanga secondary school (and the boys were clearly more well behaved 🙂

We introduced three additional telescopes, two mounted on a table, one on a tripod. With these, the students engaged in their own exploration of the night sky overhead.

MMAO - second observation night First, we observed the Moon as we had Saturday night. After everyone had a turn, we stopped to discuss what we saw, what we know about the regolith, gravity, cratering on the near and far sides, and presence of frozen water at the poles.

I then asked for volunteers who wanted to point the 12″ telescope at Jupiter. But before this, we discussed why the planets all lie on the plane of the ecliptic, and how that drastically narrows the area of the sky in which to search for them. Without using a sky map, the students surveyed the sky with their eyes and selected just one object before they found Jupiter.

Two of the students then guided the 12″ for the first time, using the tube, spotting scope, and ultimately the eyepiece to learn if their selection was indeed the famous, stormy planet. Finally, we observed Saturn with its glorious rings. And it put on a beautiful show for us this evening. The students commented, “It looks just like the photos in the books!”

In addition, we used out CCD camera for the first time. It worked! but needs some fine-tuning of color, contrast, and focus before the images are worth publishing.

MMAO - second observation night

First light!

MMAO - First light!

We saw first light!

Today was a whirlwind of activity, with more than 40 students actively engaged at the observatory from shortly after noon ’till well after 10 pm. I juggled management of a half dozen projects, all perfectly executed by the students and two of our ambassadors-teachers.

Today we got the drive motors mounted and the cables attached to the base after thorough testing of all possible directions the telescope moves. One student group built the cap for the telescope tube from the high density, shipping crate foam while another painted the shipping crate that now serves as our workbench on wheels.

We even took a break to make a pinhole camera with hope to indirectly observe the surface of the sun. It didn’t work so well, but it inspired interest to build a solar observatory. That will be our first research project, once the internet is up and running.

A group of a dozen students dove into the vast array of books and science journals shipped with the telescope, asking wonderful questions about the content they were learning while another wrote a series of questions on the white board, which I answered for the large assembly.

“What is the Moon?

“How does one select a new telescope?”

“Does looking through a telescope have any positive or negative affects on the viewer?”

And then an entire array of questions about life on other planets, where humans and robots have explored, and where we hope to go in the future. It was thrilling!

Dusk came quickly, 6 pm before anyone was ready. We were still setting the cover to the RA gear box and I had to run back to my lodge to get fresh batteries for my headlamp. Power was out but the telescope ran perfectly from the charged car battery.

The students ran down the hill from the school to the observatory, passing me as I returned to a gorgeous crescent Moon and Jupiter overhead. We adjusted the position of the secondary mirror to enable focus, aligned the spotting scope, primary telescope, and in a few minutes had a crystal clear image of the Moon.

When I exclaimed, “I’ve got it! Our first view with our telescope!” the entire assembly erupted in cheers and clapping, then preceded to nearly knock me over as they formed a telescope viewing mob. Over the course of the next hour, everyone was able to see the Moon twice. Then we set out sight (literally) on Jupiter. Again, everyone had a chance to view just before the clouds set in.

I was able to grab a photo with my cell phone of the Moon, but not Jupiter as the clouds set in too quickly. Our next goal is to get the CCD camera configured and ready to capture photos.

The only bad news is that the RA motor, when in Guide mode (tracking) appears to be set for the Northern hemisphere and is running the wrong direction. I reached out to the engineer in England who built it for us, asking if we can reconfigure on site. Stay tuned!