On day three of our recent National Science Week nine day scienceathon (a phrase coined by Evan) Lynnette, Auke and I had the privilege of presenting a short astronomy program to a group of 43 learners and their four teachers from the Athlone School for the Blind at the Bellville Public Library.
At the heart of the presentation were the fantastic Braille astronomy pictures with their accompanying Braille explanations, courtesy of Kimberly Kowal Arcand. Kimberly is part of the NASA/Chandra X-ray telescope’s educational project to take astronomy to the visually impaired and she is based at Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
The group of learners represented a spectrum of visually impaired, multiply disabled and blind learners. Not all the learners had mastered the Braille system, so we split the group. While the teachers assisted those who could read Braille with the printed material, I gave a short talk to the others on the importance of space research and also talked about the efforts in the United States to give visually impaired people access to astronomy.
The expressions of wonder and amazement on the faces of the learners reading the printed material and experiencing the Braille images and the information they contained for the first was, to say the very least, an exceptionally rewarding experience. Some of these expressions have been captured in the photographs Lynnette took and it is a pity that we have no actual recording of the enthusiastic comments passed by the learners.
Perhaps the most poignant experience was having blind learners request that they be photographed with us and knowing that they would never see the photograph. Many of the others also wanted to be on these photos too, but it was the requests from the blind ones that we found particularly touching.
The fickle Cape winter weather was very kind to us and it only rained on our parade on the first two days: Saturday the 27th and Sunday the 28th of July at Zevenwacht Mall in Kuils River. The rest of the week the weather was brilliant. In fact, it was almost too brilliant, because we found it very hot work standing in the unseasonably hot sunshine trying to entice people to look through a telescope at the sun.
We had our fair share of amusing incidents during the week. When trying to get people to come and look at the Sun, some of them just gave us odd looks, while others muttered things like “Not today” or “I don’t have my sunglasses” or “I can see it”. Then there were those that looked up at the Sun, looked at us, looked back at the Sun and shook their heads as they walked away.
There was one person who actually went down on his knees and tried to look through the Dobbies handle instead of through the eyepiece. One gent was so unimpressed with the view we offered of the sun that he was heard to mutter to a mate as they walked away, “They can’t fool me, that’s the Moon”. One group was absolutely convinced that what they were seeing was not Saturn, but a painting we had somehow inserted in the eyepiece. Even after I put the lid on the Dobby and the image disappeared, they still only grudgingly admitted that it might not be a painting after all.
We also had the near disasters with children trying to swing on the front of the Dobby or, worse still, almost poking a finger through the sun filter. One toddler crawled in under the mirror end of Lynnette’s Dobby and got lifted into the air when she lowered the scope to give somebody a last look at the setting Venus. Just imagine if they’d wanted to look at Saturn and she’d compressed the little blighter between the base of the Dobby and the rocker box!
More detail on what our programme looked like and details of the topics we covered can be found here, but on the first two days at Zevenwacht Mall we were inside handing out material and talking to people because it was overcast and rainy. Samantha came round early on the Saturday to check if we had everything we needed, which was fortunate because we had a dead electrical connection and she had to organize power from elsewhere. Because we were inside for two days we could not take up Panarotti’s kind offer to relay power from their restaurant to where we would have set up, next to their outside dining area.
On Monday the 29th and Wednesday the 31st of July, days three and five of National Science Week, we set up at the Bellville Public Library. This coincided with their annual Careers Exhibition which fitted in nicely with many of the hand-outs we had received from SAASTA. On Monday the weather was cloudy for most of the day so we stayed indoors. A highlight of the Monday’s proceedings was the opportunity to interact with a group of learners and some teachers from the Athlone School for the Blind. For this we made use of the excellent Braille astronomy posters kindly supplied by Kimberly Kowal Arcand. Kimberly is part of the NASA/Chandra X-ray telescope’s educational project to take astronomy to the visually impaired and she is based at Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Another interesting site to visit in this regard is that of Astronomy Without Borders. A very interesting article on the topic by Bernhard Beck Winchatz, can be found here. We are extremely grateful to the staff of the Bellville Library for their instrumental role in organizing this contact session. The experience was without doubt one of the highlights of National Science Week and a memory that will stay with us for a long time. A big thank you to Christelle and Jackie for creating the opportunity for us.
On Wednesday the skies were clear so we could do our solar viewing. For a short while in the morning we also had the benefit of a pale Moon which really puzzled some people. Many of them had apparently never noticed that one can at times see the Moon in daylight. On the Monday evening, after a cloudy day, the weather cleared and we could do some star gazing in the parking area next to the Library. On Wednesday evening we also had clear skies and a fair sized group of enthusiasts around the telescopes. On Monday evening, while Auke and Lynnette set up the telescopes, I gave a talk in the Library hall entitled “Van die Son tot by die rand van die Melkweg – ‘n Blitstoer vir leunstoelreisigers en ander minder waaghalsige ruimtereisigers”. On Wednesday evening, in the same timeslot, I gave a brief demonstration of the astronomy programme Stellarium and highlighted its use as a learning tool for would be astronomers. Jackie’s soup, sandwiches and coffee on Wednesday evening were absolute lifesavers.
Tuesday the 30th of July on day four of National Science Week, we set up in front of the Brackenfell Public Library. Bright and sunny with lots of opportunity for solar viewing. In the morning I gave a talk in the Library hall entitled “Van die Son tot by die rand van die Melkweg – ‘n Blitstoer vir leunstoelreisigers en ander minder waaghalsige ruimtereisigers” and in the afternoon I gave a talk there entitled “Fossils, Light and Time”.
On Tuesday evening we had a good turnout of adults and children. Everyone was keenly interested in seeing what little could be seen due to the infuriating sky glow from the city lights. As we were packing up just after 22:00, Sunelle provided the perfect finish to the day with hot chocolate and a glass of OB’s. Three cheers for Sunelle!
Thursday the 01st of August, the sixth day of National Science Week, saw us setting up on the Braak in Stellenbosch in very gusty conditions. Between showing visitors the sun and holding down the gazebo, we spent a fair amount of time chasing down hand-outs and posters.
By late 16:30 we packed up and after supper set up in the parking area behind the Town Hall in almost windless conditions. The weather gods are indeed a fickle and unpredictable lot. This specific area was known to an older generation of Stellenbosch residents as the Hardeveldjie. We were later joined there by Ernst and his band of fellow students and the extra hands certainly helped handle the fairly large number of interested passers-by that wanted to have a look at Saturn and other objects, not blotted out by the orange glow of the overhead lights. The electricity for Auke’s setup came from Julian’s Coffee Shop on the opposite side of Andringa Street courtesy of Mr Germishuys. A highlight of the evening was a visit by the SAASTA representative, Brenda Edwards. It was a pleasure to host a representative from SAASTA and give her some exposure to the somewhat chaotic nature of an astronomy outreach event.
Friday the 02nd and Saturday the 03rd of August were days seven and eight of National Science Week and the team was starting to show signs of wear. These were our two days at the Willowbridge Lifestyle Shopping Centre. We started off on the wrong foot by missing our appointment on the Friday morning at 08:30 with Heinrich. Consequently we had to move our setup because we were inadvertently infringing on some of the tenants spaces – a big no-no in shopping centres. So we set up just outside an entrance and tried to entice shoppers to view the sun.
On the Saturday we moved out into the parking area to give ourselves a little bit more room to move around in, but that turned out to be a mistake because people also had more space to walk around us. It was consequently even more difficult than on the Friday to get to lure people to the telescopes for a peek at the sun. The turnout for the stargazing on both evenings was lower than we expected but then the light pollution successfully blotted out almost everything except Venus, Saturn and a few of the brighter objects.
Sunday the 04th of August was the ninth and last day of National Science Week, or as Evan called it the Scienceathon, and there was no doubt that the team wasn’t quite as sprightly as on day one. We set up right next to the amphitheater in the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. This was almost the exact spot where Prince Alfred (second son of Queen Victoria) had tipped the first load of stone for the construction of the V&A way back in the 1800’s. In a manner of speaking, I suppose we were tipping our last load of hand-outs. The V&A events manager, George Moolman, was on hand to give us a hand with the connections from Auke’s setup to the big screen and to point out some last minute do’s and don’ts and by then the first members of the public were coming through and asking questions.
Throughout the day we had a steady stream of visitors which at times threatened to swamp us, but we survived. Auke’s excellent banners and posters once again drew a lot of attention and his solar system scale demonstration was as popular as it had been on all the other days. We had Haidee Muller from Radio Sonder Grense come round for an interview, which was a bit nerve wracking, but we survived that too. By the time the sun dropped behind the buildings we were not exactly sorry to see it go. We were tired, not just from the day’s activities, but as cumulative effect of the week’s activities.
However, we managed to finish the evening successfully despite the fact that the spot the V&A had assigned to us was anything but a prime astronomy spot. The huge, brightly lit Ferris wheel was right in front of Crux and the light pollution was by far the worst we had experienced during National Science Week.
We packed up on Sunday night with mixed emotions. Lynnette, Auke and I were glad National Science Week 2013 was over, very glad. However, as we loaded the Vito the realization slowly dawned on us that we had exactly three days to prepare for the next DarkSky outing, which was scheduled to start on the 08th of August. No rest for the wicked or for amateur astronomers it seems.
National Science Week was an eventful and definitely educational experience for Auke, Lynnette and myself. A special word of thanks to Naomi Du Preez, who was a very willing and able assistant throughout the week and, without whose help things would have come badly unstuck more than just a few times.