Astronomers Without Borders spread the word about science

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

A group calling itself Astronomers Without Borders has been delivering small telescopes to school children in Africa to arm them with tools to explore the universe and become engaged in science. It's an idea that could be extended to other scientific instruments for developing countries.

The group is a worldwide organization of volunteer amateur astronomers who bring small, inexpensive telescopes to students who would not normally have access to such equipment. While there, they also give their time and expertise to demonstrate how to use the instruments and appreciate the wonders of the universe. The telescopes even include sun filters, so the students can get a look at our closest star during the day.

The most recent trip to Usa River, close to Arusha, Tanzania, was done in conjunction with local governments and science teachers to fit with the science curriculum. They are hoping to take it a step further in the future, and raise funds to build a Centre for Science in the town.

This simple action of donating telescopes to a developing country reinforces the saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life."

Placing telescopes into the hands of students empowers them to explore on their own. You can talk about the stars and planets and look at pictures of them in books, but seeing them with your own eyes is an entirely different experience. It's one that has inspired people for more than 400 years, ever since Galileo pointed his instrument at the moon and saw it in a new light, as a world with mountains and valleys - a real place, not just a shining disc in the night sky.

My first view through a telescope was of the most beautiful of the planets, Saturn, with its magnificent rings. We've all seen images of it, but through a telescope it is a three-dimensional ball, suspended in the blackness with the rings equally suspended on their own, not touching the ball at all. Looking at the brownish image, you realize that this is the real thing. The light hitting your eyes has come from the planet itself. It's a powerful experience and once you have seen one planet, you want to see more.

So, if we can send telescopes to Tanzania, how about microscopes to Malawi or chemistry sets to Congo? Choose your science instrument and a country that could use it. Even something as simple as a class set of magnifying glasses would enable students to go outside, turn over some rocks or leaves and have a close look at what's crawling around underneath. Their own schoolyard would take on a whole new meaning. So would anything else they see around them that's worth a closer investigation.
Children are naturally curious. Somehow, by sitting them in desks and telling them to be quiet, we drum that out of them. Books and blackboards are not enough. Education is much more effective when we give children tools and let them loose out in nature to discover on their own. It gives them an experience to remember and something exciting to talk about. That's learning.

Of course, it's a lesson that would not be lost on students here at home as well.