Oxford X: Astronomy, Indigenous Knowledge and Interpretation. Cape Town, 14-18 July 2014

Certificate Workshops – School Teacher Workshops

The workshop was aimed at school teachers interested in including “Astronomy, cialis Indigenous Knowledge and Interpretation” into their classrooms. In view of the fact Lynnette and I have regular contact with schools when we do astronomy outreach, sick we decided that we also qualified as teachers. An e-mail to Kevin at the local IAU office was rerouted to the organizer of Oxford X, Dr Jarita Holbrook at the University of the Western Cape. Jarita very promptly replied that we were more than welcome to attend. Both Lynnette and I were rather exited at the prospect of the opportunity to interact with international and local scientists in this field. The workshop took place in the SAAO Auditorium and was facilitated by Dr. Sanlyn Buxner, Astronomy Education specialist, University of Arizona and Sivuyile Manxoyi, head of the SAAO Education and Outreach unit. This unit focuses on communicating and educating the public about astronomy and specializes in using indigenous languages and cultures to inspire the township based people in particular, to engage with and participate in astronomy.

Programme for day one – Saturday 12 July

9:00 am Opening Welcome & Introductions Sivuyile Manxoyi
9:15 am Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge Studies in South Africa Motheo Koitsiwe (Mahikeng Campus, North West University, South Africa)
10:00 am Working with the Cultural Astronomy Experts Sanlyn Buxner & Sivuyile Manxoyi
10:30 am Tea & Coffee
11:00 am Basic Astronomy Sanlyn Buxner
12:00 pm Archaeoastronomy Clive Ruggles (Leicester University, UK)
Sivuyile welcoming the attendees and getting the introductions done.
Sivuyile welcoming the attendees and getting the introductions done.
Motheo Koitsiwe who is based at the Mahikeng Campus, North West University, South Africa, presenting the first talk
Motheo Koitsiwe who is based at the Mahikeng Campus, North West University, South Africa, presenting the first talk

Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge Studies in South Africa

In Motheo’s presentation he presented a case for placing Indigenous Knowledge on the same footing as what he refers to as Western Science in schools and academic institutions. He used the example of Traditional Healers who use a more holistic approach when treating a patient with, for example a headache, than Western Doctors. The latter he points out would only prescribe a pain killer for the actual pain and implies that they do not look any further for causes or relationships because Western Science teaches them to think in a compartmentalized manner and not see the broader picture. This in itself is a contentious statement, but he also intimated that including Indigenous Knowledge in educational systems would teach students to think for themselves and be able to work for themselves whereas, in his view, Western Science and Education methods did not achieve this, but rather created end products which could only work for others. His references to what he calls Western Science as being, amongst others things, unethical and dishonest are definitely contentious, if not in fact libellous. I can see, accept and support the merits of giving recognition to Indigenous Knowledge in general as an essential and long overdue recognition of cultural integrity. I also concur that involving indigenous knowledge specialists directly in classroom situations can be very useful and most instructive. However, applying negative descriptors such as unethical and dishonest in broad terms to justify this and, in so doing, discredit so-called Western Science, Knowledge and Methodology is certainly not going to gain much support to achieve this.

Sivuyile Manxoyi (SAAO) and Sanlyn Buxner share a private joke as they prepare to start their presentation
Sivuyile Manxoyi (SAAO) and Sanlyn Buxner (University of Arizona) share a private joke as they prepare to start their presentation
Sivuyile explaining how the SAAoOoutreach team uses local cultural expertise. In the background is the opening frame of the video "Cosmic Africa"
Sivuyile explaining how the SAAoOoutreach team uses local cultural expertise. In the background is the opening frame of the video “Cosmic Africa”

Working with the Cultural Astronomy Experts

This presentation was rather low key and I was left with the distinct impression that the presenters could have made a much stronger case for the acquisition and presentation of Indigenous Knowledge.

Basic Astronomy

The speaker could have done considerably more with the topic and the material. Although the images were all pretty standard, the assumption that everyone in the audience knew all about astronomy was incorrect. Merely flashing through the images very briefly without any meaningful narrative to explain either the individual images or their context was not sufficient to qualify as a talk on basic astronomy.

Clive Ruggles ((Leicester University (UK) in full cry. during his presentation
Clive Ruggles (Leicester University (UK) in full cry during his presentation

Archaeoastronomy

Perhaps the contrast between this speaker and the previous rather lacklustre presentations contributed to my perception of this talk as being both exciting and highly informative. The presentation not only contained a wealth of information, but also encouraged one to question the current interpretation of knowledge on the subject. It is always a pleasure to listen to a knowledgeable person speak enthusiastically about their field of expertise, but for me, it also instils confidence in that person if they are critical of their own work and interpretations. Archaeoastronomy has come quite a long way in the last few years and much of this progress can, I think, be attributed to the efforts of people like the speaker and others of his calibre in the field. My take home item from this talk, was the cautionary comment that one should not read preconceived ideas (pet theories) into a site, but make every attempt to always read from it.

Day two was wet as can be seen in this photograph of the N1 on our way to the workshop.\
Day two was wet as can be seen in this photograph of the N1 on our way to the workshop.

Programme for day two – Sunday 13 July

9:00 am Setting the Intentions for the Day
9:30 am Ethnoastronomy Barbara Tedlock (SUNY – Buffalo, USA) & Jarita Holbrook (UWC, South Africa)
10:00 am Cultural Astronomy Lessons from Hungary Emilia Pasztor (Hungary)
10:30 am Tea & Coffee
11:00 am Cultural Astronomy Education in Australia Duane Hamacher (Australia)
11:30 am South African Indigenous Astronomy Themba Matomela (Iziko Planetarium, South Africa) He was replaced by Thebe Medupe, (Associate Professor in Astrophysicist at the Mahikeng Campus, North West University, South Africa)
12:00 pm Building Lesson Plans Sanlyn Buxner and Sivuyile Manxoyi

Ethnoastronomy

The interaction between the two presenters was a clear indication of two professionals who were entirely at home in their fields of expertise. The information about their respective research activities and also the brief histories of how they ended up where they are, was elucidating. In particular the information about Swainson’s Hawk’s migration and how that tied into the applied indigenous knowledge of the people along its migration route, was most interesting. I will certainly look at the Coal Sack Nebula with new eyes in the future. Probably the most valuable take home message from this talk was the prime necessity of a very close relationship with bearers of indigenous knowledge and the non-negotiable participation of the giver of information in the returns generated by that information.

Emila Pasztor Scientific adviser/editor/project manager at StudioMagistratum, Kecskemét/Dunafoldvar in Hungary emphasizing the need to think carefully about what one deduces from archaeoastronomy finds
Emila Pasztor (Scientific adviser/editor/project manager at StudioMagistratum, Kecskemét/Dunafoldvar in Hungary) emphasizing the need to think carefully about what one deduces from archaeoastronomy finds

Cultural Astronomy Lessons from Hungary

The speaker presented an interesting account of the finding and interpretation of astronomy symbolism in archaeological artefacts from the Carpathian Basin in Hungary. I found the methods used to introduce learners to astronomy and to these cultural artefacts very interesting. The pro-active efforts to generate an appreciation and understanding of the astronomical connectedness of past cultures, is an aspect one must take cognisance of in the Southern African context as well. Aspects which I know I often overlook are the weather phenomena which, although not astronomical in the strictest sense of the word, are most certainly an important part of the general body of indigenous knowledge.

Cultural Astronomy Education in Australia

Duane Hamacher (University of New South Wales, Australia)
Duane Hamacher (University of New South Wales, Australia)

The speaker’s computer problems reminded me of an erstwhile colleague’s admonition that one had to, like in cricket, inspect the pitch before one actually went out to either bat or bowl. The talk outlined the efforts and progress at a specific Australian University to include an indigenous knowledge component in all courses at the university. They also make extensive use of indigenous knowledge experts in presentations and carry out extensive filed work to expose students to indigenous knowledge cultures at grass roots level. The diversity of indigenous knowledge systems in the various areas of Australia emphasizes the need to recognize the regional nature of interpretations and also underlines the complexity of the issue. One of the objections raised against institutional recognition has been that it would be tantamount to sanctioning the teaching of creationism. This objection can be refuted because the spirituality aspect of indigenous knowledge is by no means dogmatically religious.

Thebe Medupe (Northwest University, Mahikeng, South Africa) as relaxed as always
Thebe Medupe (Northwest University, Mahikeng, South Africa) as relaxed as always

South African Indigenous Astronomy

I have attended talks by this speaker in the past and always enjoy his relaxed style. I like the emphasis he placed on cultural astronomy while, at the same time, stressing the need to create a bridge for modern day learners to gain access to mainstream (modern) astronomy. I have watched “Cosmic Africa” before, but listening to the personal accounts and interpretations of the person around whose experiences it was constructed, remains rather special. His narration of personal experiences at the various sites and the value these experiences added to his own life and to his teaching, are worth taking note of. The speaker is clearly well versed in modern computational astronomy, but also values the indigenous astronomy which forms an integral part of his own cultural background. This appreciation of his own astronomical cultural heritage also extends to that of other cultures, but he never loses his analytical scientific evaluation.

Sanlyn Buxner (University of Arizona) facilitating the last session
Sanlyn Buxner (University of Arizona) facilitating the last session

Building Lesson Plan

This presentation turned out quite differently to what I had expected. Nevertheless the exchange of ideas and opinions amongst attendees was insightful and will be useful. An important aspect that emerged during the discussions was the fact that in South African Schools, the curriculum requires some Astronomy, mainly covering the Solar System, to be taught by grade seven. Attendees, who are closely involved with educators and school curricula, confirmed my own observations during outreach events, that many of the educators are either poorly equipped or even not equipped at all to teach the subject. These same factors are, in my experience, also the reason that the small amount of material covering Geology and Fossils in the curriculum is either not taught or poorly taught. As far as Astronomy is concerned, this situation is exasperated by the fact that the specific module falls toward the end of the final term in the year, when educators are pressed for time. This results in the work being rushed and, in many cases, just not done. Educators have, in the past, also admitted to me that they do not understand the Astronomy section, so they do not teach it. At one end of the spectrum South Africa is planning and implementing astronomy related projects like SALT, KAT7, meerKAT and the SKA and at the other end learners are not properly prepared to make use of the opportunities afforded to them by these exiting astronomy developments in the country. This is a very sad state of affairs.

Overall impressions

Like the infamous Curate’s egg, the workshop was quite good in parts. Useful information was made available and I certainly gained some valuable insights. Probably the most valuable part of the workshop was the opportunity it afforded one to make contact with key figures in the field and also to interact with them and exchange ideas.

A vie from teh auditorium westward toward the harbour.  Very different to the view the early astronomers would have had
A view from teh auditorium westward toward the harbour. Very different to the view the early astronomers would have had
The analemma in front of the Jackson sundial
The analemma in front of the Jackson sundial
Fearon Fallows the first Astronomer Royal at the Cape lies buried here
Fearon Fallows the first Astronomer Royal at the Cape lies buried here
Sir Thomas Maclear and his wife Mary are buried here too
Sir Thomas Maclear and his wife Mary are buried here too
Looking across the lawn in front of the main building toward the building housing the Maclean or Victoria telescope
Looking across the lawn in front of the main building toward the building housing the Maclean or Victoria telescope

 

Star Parties to attend if you are going to North America soon

Sky & Telescope Magazine has an article on star gazing in the USA.  As part of the article they published a list of “selected” Star Parties taking place in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. Down here in the Western Cape we have rain, clouds and then more rain and clouds.  ASSA’s Bloemfontein Centre recently held the first Free State Star Party and they had fine but cold weather while Kos and the Soutpansberg Astronomy Club in Limpopo Province seem to be having a run of fine weather too.  The next Southern Star Party is scheduled for November at our usual venue, Night Sky Caravan Farm on the farm Oudekraal, west of Bonnievale

Selected North American Star Parties in 2014
Event Location Dates
Table Mountain Star Party Oroville, WA July 22-26
Mason Dixon Star Party Wellsville, PA July 23-27
Stellafane Convention Springfield, VT July 24-27
Mount Kobau Star Party Osoyoos, BC (Canada) July 26-Aug. 3
Oregon Star Party  Prineville, OR  Aug. 19-24
Starfest  Ayton, ON (Canada)  Aug. 21-24
Almost Heaven Star Party  Circleville, WV  Aug. 22-26
Nova East Star Party  Haunts County NS (Canada)  Aug. 22-24
Idaho Star Party  Mountain Home, ID  Sept. 19-21
Alberta Star Party  Drumheller, AB (Canada)  Sept. 19-21
Okie-Tex Star Party  Kenton, OK  Sept. 20-28
Astroblast  Franklin, PA  Sept. 23-28
SJAC Fall Star Party  Woodbine, NJ  Sept. 25-28
Astronomy Day (autumn)  Everywhere!  Oct. 4
Bays Mountain StarFest  Kingsport, TN  Oct. 17-19
 Chiefland Star Party  Chiefland, FL  Nov. 17-23