by Maya Barlev
- Published: Friday, April 26 2013 14:00
Imagination, humility, connection and curiosity: this is why we do astronomy. These are the sensations our ancestors felt when looking up at the sky centuries ago, and these are the feelings we still experience as we continue to work through the countless and ever-multiplying mysteries of our Universe. For the past nine months, I’ve travelled around the world with the sole purpose of speaking with children about astronomy. Why speak primarily with children, and not adults? I believe that kids are able to expose and articulate these pillars more clearly and with less fear than grown-ups. Children have the ability to both reflect their environments and upbringings while simultaneously remaining creative, curious and uninhibited.
Maya speaking with children about astronomy in Cape Town, South Africa.
In speaking with children across four continents and five countries these past nine months, I’ve learned several lessons about how people connect with our Universe on a fundamental and human level, and also what can stifle that connection as we grow older. The younger students I speak with all want to go to the moon, to meet an alien, to discover a new planet and name it after themselves, or to travel in a rocket-ship to a distant star. The older students, meanwhile, feel the heavy weight of insurmountable algebraic equations, countless scientific facts to be memorized, and often times the reality of the exclusivity and cost of the scientific academic sphere.
I strongly believe that not every child should become an astronomer, but every child should learn to appreciate astronomy. Often times, outreach groups from observatories or academic institutions will visit schools to inspire students to pursue careers in astronomy. This is wonderful, and I’m in support of finding those children with a potential career interest in science and showing them the opportunities they have. I met students in South Africa, for example, who thrive in their math and science classes, but who never heard of the Square Kilometre Array and all of the opportunities it is bringing to their country. After learning about the project, these students beam with excitement as they learn that their dreams to work in a field they enjoy are in fact realizable.
Maya with learners in Sutherland, South Africa
But what about the rest of the class? What about the students who thrive more in other subjects? These students are equally capable of having the innate human reactions to astronomy simply by learning about the wonders of the Universe. By thinking of the possibilities of what can exist in the infinite miles beyond our planet, they can push their imaginations and ignite their natural curiosity. By learning about the scale size of our Earth, they learn personal humility while gaining a connection with the rest of humanity. These are the values that can unite us and what makes astronomy a practical and powerful tool for solving world problems. In order to utilize this tool, we as educators and astronomers need to fuel that appreciation in every student, not just the ones who may become career scientists.
I ask students, especially the older ones who have been turned off from science, if they like listening to music. When they say yes, I ask if they are personally a musician, and many say no. The same can be true for appreciation of science. I try to convey that while you don’t have to be on the frontlines of the field, making discoveries or producing academic papers, you can still gain the human benefits of what astronomy has to offer.
As I travel, I’m regularly amazed at the constancy of children’s responses to discussing or observing the Universe. How looking into a telescope at the rings of Saturn or the craters on the Moon can ignite the same, powerful human reaction in children of various ages, geographic locations, religions, educational backgrounds and upbringings. I am learning so much as I travel from the best educators, astronomers, and global thinkers, and also from the most thoughtful, inquisitive and creative children. I’m reminded every day of the beauty of our planet and the forces that unite us as we look beyond it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas, and look forward to the conversations I have with children and adults as I continue to travel in the coming months.
Maya received her Bachelor of Science in astrophysics from Haverford College (Pennsylvania, USA) in May, 2012. In August 2012, she began a year of travel as a Thomas J. Watson fellow, exploring how children from a variety of backgrounds understand astronomy. Over the course of the year, she will travel to Chile, Nepal, South Africa, Ethiopia, New Zealand and Indonesia. Maya has always been passionate about education equality as well as astronomy, and is hoping that this year will give her the experience and perspective to tackle major issues of science education reform in the United States. She believes strongly that astronomy has all of the components to make the world a better place, and looks forward to putting those beliefs into action. To follow Maya’s travels around the world, you can check out her blog: www.littlemayabigworld.blogspot.com .