By Mike Simmons
AWB Founder and President
Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) recently launched a new program, Big Impact Giving (BIG), to raise funds for small projects that will have a big impact. With a limit of 500 USD, these projects represent the small needs we hear about all the time - a telescope for a club outreach program, books for a school library - that are too small for grants but too much for the club or school or other organization, often in a developing country, to manage themselves. When passionate volunteers are ready, or the schoolroom has a library with few books, these small needs are often the last, small piece of a large puzzle. A small investment that can accomplish a lot, unleashing the capacity that awaits.
AWB's first BIG campaign was an inside job - AWB webmaster Liz Sanders going to Kenya with an ongoing program to help in a school for underprivileged girls. Liz wanted to take one of AWB's very popular OneSky telescopes and other materials to bring astronomy into the classrooms. The rest of the staff got involved with suggestions for books and other materials, filling staff meetings with discussions of age-appropriate astronomy resources. People at AWB, as you might imagine, get into this sort of thing.
This first campaign was a success thanks in large part to AWB supporter Karen Jay who donated enough to fund the entire project, and others. But there is more to the success of this one campaign than the money that was raised.
This campaign launches a program that is unique, as far as I know, filling what I think is the largest gap in philanthropy, what I call "microfunding." Small needs for ordinary people who don't have the means to raise the funds to follow their passion to help others - teaching, sharing, making others' lives better in countries rich and poor. Anonymous people who will never get the publicity of a big crowdfunding campaign. How does a school in Kenya find money to get a telescope? Even if they had the money how would they buy one where they aren't sold (or are incredibly expensive if someone does import them). Order it online? Not without a credit card, lacking in most of the world, and not where it might be stolen along the way or be charged an exorbitant customs fee if it does survive the journey. It's simple in developed nations but not in the vast majority of countries.
Why a telescope and astronomy books anyway? While AWB's Telescopes to Tanzania project has received great support, people question the need for astronomy in rural schools in Africa. Don't they need food more than telescopes? Sure they do. The students can't learn if they're hungry, and some schools might be providing the students' best meal of the day. Instead of the telescope and other resources, Liz could take snacks for every child in the school for one day, but then what?
Who will grow the food that Kenya needs? Where will the agronomists come from? What hydrologists will work on bringing water to the crops? Where are the engineers and scientists of the future who will eventually obviate Kenya's need for outside help? Who will lead their country into a future of sustainability and self-dependence?
The answer is as obvious as the question: the students in that school and other schools like it. But only if they're given the chance. In Tanzania, schools that are served by Telescopes to Tanzania lack science teaching materials, science laboratories, and science-trained teachers. Things just don't happen the way we take for granted in the US and other developed countries. The resources to build these institutions just aren't there. Life goes on with whatever is available.
The one lab available to every school is overhead, ironically a better lab in many dark, rural locations than in the big cities of wealthy countries. Astronomy is universal, the same everywhere around the world. And it's universally loved. It's the rare person who isn't interested in this particular science. And astronomy is in every culture throughout the world and back through time. The basics are easy to learn and astronomy is connected to almost every field in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Geology in the solar system and biology in the search for life on other words. Pushing the frontiers of technology and engineering in small instruments (one of the first fields to use CCD's) and huge telescopes. Math, well, that's what's behind everything. Astronomy turns everyone into a scientist, and can serve as an introduction to almost any field you choose. In decades of astronomy outreach, I've met hundreds of people whose STEM careers were sparked by an early love of astronomy. Few go into astronomy as a career but astronomy is often what made science accessible and exciting to them for the first time.
As Karen Jay told me in an exchange after her donation to the Kenya project, "Who knows what future astronomer/astrophysicist is just waiting to change the world?" She adds, "these kids have potential!" Yes, they do. I've seen incredible people in every country no matter how poor or war-torn. People who had a chance to follow their own dreams and can now make a difference to others. Some may define success as making money but an amazing number just want to help their country improve and provide the same benefits of society they've seen in other countries.
Ability, passion, the need to help. These are universal qualities. Not everyone in a country has them, but every country has plenty of people who do. Young people with fiery passion to learn and succeed. And to share with others and lift their societies.
For many, success is making a difference. And sometimes it's a small step that can lead to BIG changes.