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¡Vamos a ver la Lu-na! ¡Vamos a ver la Lu-na! (We're going to see the Moon!) Joni, Kevin and Óscar chanted in sing-song as they carried two tables for me down the rocky path to their house in Fátima, Guatemala. I was carrying a tiny tripod and my Galileoscope, a plastic 2" refracting telescope designed for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. The weather had been terrible the last couple of weeks, including two serious storms that caused massive landslides, even closing down the only road into the community for several days. But that evening, the clouds were finally disappearing. After dinner (fried cornmeal) in my host family's concrete house (shared by 10 people and 2 rabbits), I spotted Jupiter rising over their corrugated metal roof, and occasional hints of the crescent moon through the clearing clouds in the west —and soon perhaps twenty-five kids and adults from the neighborhood were clustered around me and my telescope delicately perched on the tables. I picked up 6-year-old Joni to look through the eyepiece: I explained that just as we have a moon, the planet Jupiter has moons, and so he'd see a bright circle with four little points of light in a line (the Galilean moons). A huge grin, and he pronounced it "Calidád." (Quality!)
The night was Calidád for me too. I'm an astrophysicist with a strong interest in education, particularly in the developing world. After visiting Brazil for a conference in 2009, I decided I wanted to come back to Latin America and get to know a community of people there, seeing if I could help by offering my primary expertise—teaching astronomy/science. After graduating with my Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in July 2011, I took a few months off before starting a post-doc in Toronto (at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics) to do astronomy outreach in South Africa and Guatemala. In Guatemala, I spent six weeks at a Spanish language school called La Escuela de la Montaña (the Mountain School), in the western highlands about an hour outside the city of Quetzaltenango by "chicken bus" (originally Bluebird school buses from the U.S. which have been colorfully repainted and are typically crammed with two to three times as many passengers as their U.S. specs intended). The school is in a rural area of coffee plantations, and associates closely with two tiny communities, Fátima and Nuevo San José. The school employs people from the communities, and Spanish-language students (like me) eat three meals a day in the communities with a host family that rotates each week. In this way, I had the amazing opportunity to know and learn from and make friends with people whose life situations are very different from my own. I'd also come with the idea (or hope) that most anyone in the world—even with very little education—would be curious about the universe, its contents, and our place in it. And that night, with a throng of people excitedly jostling to see Jupiter, then the Moon, then Jupiter again, then the Moon again(!), I felt that this could well be true. I'm writing this to tell you a bit about my astronomy outreach work here, and to simply give you a flavor of life—sights, sounds, smells, and, above all, people—in the Guatemalan countryside.
Guatemala lies just south of Mexico and is home to 13 million people, about 40% of whom are indigenous Mayan. The country recently suffered 36 years of civil war that ended only in 1996, leaving Guatemala with the second lowest United Nations Human Development Index (a measure of poverty, education, and health) in Latin America, ahead of only Haiti. In the community where I stayed, people live on $3 per day (normalized for purchasing power): less than half of the country's mean; a few percent of a North American post-doc's salary. Most men there are temporary or day laborers in agriculture or construction, and unemployment is very high. The families live in concrete and corrugated metal houses, and do have electricity and running water; most have televisions and cell phones as well. Education in Guatemala is free and compulsory only through 6th grade, and the national illiteracy rate is 25%. Guatemalans today have spent on average only 4 years in school, though the situation has been improving significantly, and a child who enters school now is expected to finish with more than 10 years of education.
Astronomy can be a unique gateway to science for promoting education in developing countries (and developed ones as well). Astronomy is accessible—people anywhere can observe and wonder about the stars, Moon, planets, and Sun—and astronomy is inspiring, offering a means to study philosophical questions about where we came from. In preparing for my trip, I thought about and pieced together three major goals of astronomy outreach in the developing world. Most directly, interest in astronomy can encourage children to pursue their education, preparing them for jobs in science and technology (which will improve their lives economically and more broadly help build the country's knowledge economy). Learning scientific thinking and questioning can also encourage people to question objectively and look for explanations about their own life situations, not just accepting things as they are, and encouraging them to work for change. And thirdly, astronomy can offer perspective on our lives on this planet, encouraging feelings of global citizenship and tolerance and promoting peace. (Based on ideas like these, the International Astronomical Union created a Strategic Plan for using astronomy to promote development, available at http://iau.org/static/education/strategicplan_091001.pdf. A new Office of Astronomy for Development has been established in Cape Town, South Africa to carry out these ideas: http://www.astronomyfordevelopment.org.)
Schools weren't in session during my visit because of the coffee harvest, so most of my outreach was through informal time spent with children. My strategy was to pique people's curiosity and stimulate them to ask questions by showing them interesting materials—a children's book about the Solar System, a foot-diameter inflatable ball printed with satellite photography of the Earth, pictures of planets and galaxies, diffraction grating glasses, and of course, the Galileoscope. I can illustrate my experiences by telling you about three children I got to know—Jesmin, Luis, and Roxana.
Jesmin demonstrated the most tenacity of all the people I met during my trip. A rainy afternoon during my second week, I passed 10-year-old Jesmin in the street in front of her house. "What's your name?" she asked me. Then, very directly, "Do you have books? Can you come and read with me?" I've never seen a North American child do anything like this. Of course, I said yes! Over the subsequent days, she and her little brother Juan Carlos read with me Spanish versions of classics like Clifford the Firehouse Dog and Where the Wild Things Are (borrowed from the Mountain School). Jesmin's reading level wasn't bad for her age (though 8-year-old Juan Carlos couldn't read at all). The family has no books; Jesmin's father Enrique has tried three times to cross the border into the U.S., leading to his incarceration and eventual deportation back to Guatemala in shackles. Jesmin's directness and desire to leap at learning opportunities struck me deeply.
Jesmin's neighbors Luis (8 years old) and sister Roxana (11) cannot read or even identify most letters of the alphabet—but they did a little better with arithmetic. I first gave them subtraction problems less than 10, and they used their fingers; then less than 20, and they used their toes as well. What would they do for more than 20? I asked them 25 – 4. There was a pause. Then Luis grabbed a stick and started making tallies in the dirt. He counted up to 25, then counted 4 from the end and erased them, then counted up from the beginning again. Roxana followed and soon they were racing each other to solve my subtraction problems! "Another one, another one!" they cried. Their resourcefulness and enthusiasm were terrific, but they didn't see patterns and short-cuts. Then Roxana and I worked together for a while, trying to see how to do problems like 55 – 3 without needing her stick. She occasionally held her head like it was hurting a little, but she pressed on practicing and started to get the hang of it. "I'm learning!" she declared proudly. Her learning-powered joy and self-respect were so evident! Meanwhile, Luis loved playing with the Earth Ball—he learned how to find Guatemala, California and England, and proudly showed anybody who walked by on the street.
The Galileoscope star parties were the biggest hit through my stay in Guatemala. Every clear evening, I set up the telescope and invited people to look at the Moon (during the right part of the month), Jupiter and its moons, and the Pleiades. My Spanish teacher Abby invited me to dinner at her house in the nearby town of Colomba for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, November 1), and asked me to bring my telescope. Her extended family and neighbors joined us, including another teacher Anny who looked back at the Moon again and again and again! The two night watchmen at the Mountain School, Gustavo and Rubén, liked looking through the telescope as well, and told me about star names from their culture: the Santa Marías (the three stars of Orion's belt) and the Siete Cabritas (seven little goats—the Pleiades). I also had a star party for young teenagers who come to the Mountain School every week for a youth night. When most of those kids had looked through the telescope, I saw a group of older kids hanging out in the background and smoking. Thinking to myself, "Astronomy is for everyone!" I invited them over as well, and they seemed to enjoy looking at Jupiter; the next morning I learned they were members of a gang! But the biggest star parties were at the very end of my trip, with a group of children (and their families) who were attending a summer camp at the volunteer fire department in Colomba. I first visited the fire department one morning to do astronomy activities with the 30 kids. My goals were to show them that their own everyday observations have physical explanations, that they could ask why (I had them all repeat "Why?!" out loud with me), and that the same physical principles hold throughout the Universe. We made models of the Moon orbiting the Earth and the planets orbiting the Sun, with the kids walking around in concentric circles holding signs saying planet names. Two days later I came back for a star party. The sky took hours to clear, but the families were very patient; their laid-back attitude paid off, and eventually we all got to look at Jupiter through the telescope. Afterwards, one of the parents took photos of me with all of her kids. And the event was exciting enough for the local television news station to cover it! (Roxana asked me afterwards: "When we saw you on TV, could you see us, too?")
Almost everyone I talked to in Guatemala was excited to talk about astronomy with me. People were very warm and welcoming, and a teenager told me it was cool to talk to a scientist since they just don't meet scientists in their rural area. Occasionally I was disappointed to see the mothers focus on practicalities with their kids rather than capitalizing on teachable moments; for example, Joni was asking me lots of questions about planets at the dinner table, but his mother took away the planet pictures and said he needed to eat. (Later, though, Joni ran down the street to me wearing the diffraction grating glasses I'd given him!) Here are some of the questions people asked me: Are other stars really like the Sun? Which countries are on Jupiter? Which people and animals live on Jupiter and the Moon? What's below us on Earth? —Water? What happened to Pluto? Why is Africa yellow? What causes the motion of the continents? [From 10-year-old Evelyn, the most scientifically advanced child I met there, after I showed her that South America and Africa fit together] Is the world going to end in 2012? and What are meteors?
Although I don't expect that most people I met will remember specific pieces of astronomy I taught them, I am hopeful that the memory of looking through the telescope and asking questions about the Universe will stay with them, and that this curiosity will push them to keep learning, despite the severe shortcomings of their education system. And there are some reasons to feel positive about their education. The Mountain School provides scholarships to many local children for their schooling past 6th grade (from donations and our tuition: http://www.escuelamontana.org), and has almost completed building a community library: children will be able to do homework and read books there, and the community will have free access to the internet. Once the community is connected, I'm hoping to continue doing some science activities with them remotely; I'm also planning to send them eclipse glasses to watch the transit of Venus in June. And in a few years, I hope to return in person.
In conclusion, my experiences in Guatemala were deeply rewarding for me: I learned a great deal about another culture and another way of life, and was able to give a poor community something they appreciated very much. I highly encourage any scientist with interest in developing countries to engage in some science public outreach abroad, either in person or remotely. People there want to know more about the Universe and stand to improve their lives by learning science—and we scientists have the knowledge and curiosity to share with them!
Linda can be contacted by email.