Colloquium, SAAO Auditorium: “Teaching History of Astronomy to the Public: The ABC Experience”

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales: 19th of June 2014.

Lynnette and I attended a colloquium in the SAAO Auditorium titled “Teaching History of Astronomy to the Public: The ABC Experience”.  The speaker was Dr. Julio Saucedo Morales from the University of Sonora. Dr Morales is based at the Department of Research in Physics at the University of Sonora, remedy which is situated in Hermosillo, the capital city of the state of Sonora in Mexico.

The ABC referred to in the title is the Astronomy Basic Course, which the University of Sonora has been offering for this course to general public for the past 25 years. The course is presented as direct contact sessions and through the internet. The course takes three months to complete and consists of 12 three hour theoretical sessions on Saturday mornings with eight observing sessions held on Saturday evenings.

The ABC experience consists of 12 modules and starts with a session on the Philosophy of Science before moving on to the second session, the History of Astronomy. It is this this particular aspect which the speaker presented at the colloquium and which he is especially passionate about. Other than agriculture, astronomy is arguably the oldest scientific activity practiced by humans.

Julio makes the point that Astronomy has been a key element in the development of human civilization but, because the public in general knows very little about astronomy and, in particular, the history of astronomy, the public does not appreciate its importance. However, people from all backgrounds find astronomy interesting and this creates an opportunity to address the lack of knowledge by means of specific educational courses and outreach activities.

He gave a quick overview of the contents of the course on the History of Astronomy and then went on to discuss the results of a survey they had conducted to assess the impact of their course on the knowledge levels of the attendees as compared to non-attendees, as well as Physics, Civil Engineering and Mathematics students at the University.  This results show that the course attendees have a definite edge over even the students after attending the course as far as their knowledge of astronomy is concerned.  All course materials (PowerPoint presentations and videos) can be downloaded here.

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales and a group of learners during an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory, INAOE, Cananea, Sonora

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales (far right) and a group of learners during an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory, INAOE, Cananea, Sonora

The University of Sonora has an astronomy page, called the Área de Astronomíade la Universidad de Sonora.  The first time I visited the page was not available and the following message in Spanish was displayed: “No podemos encontrar la página que querías. Tal vez se cayó en un agujero negro!” In English that says “We cannot find the page you wanted. Maybe it fell into a black hole!”, which I thought was rather appropriate for an astronomy page.

The University also has a Solar Observatory, the Carl Sagan Solar Observatory which participates in a wide variety of outreach activities.  An example of the other outreach activities that the University participates in is the “Noche de Las Estrellas” or “Night of the Stars” or “Starry Night”. They are also very active in the “From the Classroom to the Universe” program which has the objective of providing telescopes and training for Astronomy Clubs in schools throughout Mexico.

Lynnette and I enjoyed the talk and both liked the fact that the speakers enthusiasm for taking astronomy to the public was very noticeable throughout his presentation.  It is actually a great pity that the talk was so poorly attended.  We had the privilege of being able to spend about 15 minutes in discussion with him after the talk and during that time one really got a feel for the passion he brings to his outreach and the immense satisfaction he obtains from doing it.  It would be a great privilege to be able to work with him and collaborate on a project.

Venus Transit 6/6/12 Carl Sagan Solar Observatory: Image  taken by Magdalena Riestra Caraveo

Venus Transit 6/6/12 Carl Sagan Solar Observatory: Image taken by Magdalena Riestra Caraveo.

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