Birika!!! That’s the Swahili word used by teachers, students, and community members to name the teapot asterism in Sagittarius. With dark skies (magnitude 7 on the Great World Wide Star Count chart) it was great fun finding deep sky objects during a month-long teaching experience in northern Tanzania.
In October I returned to Africa for a second year of teaching astronomy, optics and light. I shared my love of astronomy and left almost 250 pounds of equipment and resources with five secondary and two elementary schools on Mt. Meru (4,566 meters). Each of the seven schools received either a 50mm Galileoscope or a 70mm Vixen Space Eye telescope, a tripod, three or four modern eyepieces and other astronomy related materials.
Traveling most of the time by Land Rover, I often lived off the grid between 1,500 and 3,000 meters above sea level while staying in the villages of Kikatiti, Kitefu, Ngarenanyuki, Songoro, and Mulala.
In the secondary schools I worked primarily with the math, physics, chemistry and geography teachers. At some schools most of the teaching and administrative staff attended the sessions. Over a two-day period I typically introduced the resources and teaching materials to the teachers all day the first day and then completed the introduction on part of the second morning.
Topics covered include:
■ Telescope set up and operation,
■ Geography: latitude, longitude and its impact on viewing
■ Observing the night sky: constellations, sky maps and wheels, moon phases, tides and eclipse
■ Observing the sun: solar dynamics, sun spots, solar filters and safety-first practices
■ Optics and light: focal length, lenses, visible light spectrum, prisms, spectra scopes and spectra analysis
■ Electro-magnetic spectrum: demonstrating radio waves, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray and discussion of gamma rays
■ Solar system: distance, size, orbits and composition of the planets
■ Dark Sky activities: light Pollution and the October Worldwide Star Count
By mid-morning of the second day each of the teachers worked with a small group of students (10–15 per group) presenting some of the teaching material introduced. I moved from group to group, answering questions and assisting the teachers. During the sessions the instructors would often share that they had already learned much of the theory about optics, light and color — but that this was their first opportunity for hands-on experience with equipment like telescopes, lenses and spectra-scopes.
In addition to the resources and teaching tools left behind I also tried to introduce some hands-on, interactive pedagogical methods to the teachers. In the afternoon I’d spend several hours with the teachers debriefing the experience of working with the students, answering questions, reviewing materials and helping the teachers to consider how to use the resources with students on a regular basis.
At some schools their plans include a school-wide astronomy focus for a day once every 4 to 6 weeks and forming Space Clubs on campus. Whenever the sky was clear teachers and students engaged in solar observing during the day, and star/planet observing at night. Unfortunately the evening viewing was clouded out early in the month.
Topics introduced to primary teachers in day-long visits to the schools included:
■ Telescope assembly and usage,
■ Observing the night sky: onstellations, sky wheels and moon phases
■ Geography and its impact on viewing
■ Solar system: distance, size, and orbits
In the afternoon, the teachers worked with students on telescope observing, solar observing and the orbits of the planets
A critical context for the work involved the current drought/famine situation in the Horn of Africa, including northern Tanzania. Because the rains did not provide sufficient moisture for the crops, shortages of maize and beans have resulted in food prices three times the normal rate. Thanks to supporters in the United States, I was able to provide food relief monies to each of the schools and communities visited.
When I describe the Telescopes to Tanzania program, I often repeat a quote from Oscar Wilde who once said, “Ordinary riches can b estolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.” To that I add, “Something magical, mystical, even spiritual occurs the first time the photons in the eyepiece strike your eye.
They stay with you throughout your life — residing in your soul.” The Telescopes to Tanzania project is intended to give instructors and the young people they teach a gift for their soul and motivation to remain in school, study math and science and help to build their young nation as they become leaders in their communities.
Since returning, I have stayed in communication with teachers and community members. In ddition, I hope that reports like this one will make it possible for the Telescopes to Tanzania program to take more telescopes, tripods and astronomy materials to other schools in Tanzania sometime in the next 18 months. I’d like to gather a delegation of four to six astronomers with math and science backgrounds to join me.
Thanks go to the following for donating money, equipment and supplies: Astronomers Without Borders, Global Hands on Universe, The Galileo Teacher Training Program, Canadian Telescope, Celestron Telescope, American Science and Surplus, Agena AstroProducts, Learning Encounters, the NASA EPO group, the European Southern Observatory, the Las Cumbres Global Observatory and Telescope Network, members of the Racine Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, several congregations in the Greater Milwaukee Synod (ELCA), the Pan de Cielo Ministry, and individual donors. Special thanks to the 27 individuals who between June and October, used part of their checked baggage allotment to transport over 165 pounds of equipment and teaching supplies into Tanzania.
I am a member of the Racine Astronomical Society, and a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor, anti-racism organizer and trainer. I love to teach adults and young people — especially my five grandchildren — about the beauty of the universe and the night sky from southeastern Wisconsin. Reach me at Chuck.Ruehle@yahoo.com.
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