Wednesday 25 July 2012

Universidad de Concepcion - Astronomy Outreach

On Monday and Tuesday I had been invited by Paulina Hernandez Jara, of the Universidad de Concepcion, to observe their public astronomy activities, for the winter holidays.

I arrived at the university on Monday late morning, and after a little bit of asking around, I found Paulina in the hall with the planetarium. It was lovely to meet her and she proceeded to introduce me to various different people from the Astronomy Department.

Me and some of the Concepcion outreach team

Paulina has worked as the outreach officer for the Astronomy Department for a couple of years and is a journalist by background. She had organised 2 weeks of public activities, following on from a very successful 1 week of activities in the past summer.

The programme of activities was fantastic - something for everyone, a great variety. The previous week they had 'Astro-Cine' and had shown various films, like 'Contact' and '2001 - A Space Odyssey'. Throughout the whole 2 weeks they also had various courses on different topics like black holes, exoplanets, stars and galaxies - given by professors of the department. They also had arranged for the Cerro Tololo Observatory outreach team to come with their planetarium and do shows each day for 1 week, as well as various other workshops and talks - including a workshop for pre-school children. They also had the IYA 2009 exhibition From Earth To The Universe on display. Also, each day, a post-grad or masters student would give a short talk on a different topic, like the history of astronomy, astrobiology and astronomy in different wavelengths.

The team providing the activities were a mixture of professors, post-docs and post-grads, as well as various undergrads helping out with the administration of the activities.

All the activities, bar the courses, were provided for free to the public. I asked Paulina how they got the funds for such a programme, and she told me that within the University there is an Arts and Culture department who fund activities for the public, but normally focussing more on the Arts side of things.

After chatting for a while with various people, and having a spot of lunch together with Paulina and Marcela (the department secretary) I went to the spectroscopy workshop which was being provided by Juan Sequel Beecher.

There were around 20 people who had booked in for this workshop, and they were a mixture of adults and children.

Juan started with an introduction to himself and the Cerro Tololo Observatory and made the very good point that there are many different people who work at observatories, not just astronomers. He himself is a mechanical engineer by background, and moved into outreach later.

He then continued to give a brief description of how our eyes work, comparing the sensors in our eyes to the sensors of a camera, and explaining that our eyes don't see colour well at night because of one of the cone cells.

After this he went on to explain a little about spectroscopy and the sequence of stars, and how we can find out information about the chemical composition of the stars by studying the light emitted, and using spectroscopy.

Juan had a selection of different lamps at the front of the room, and gave each member of the audience a handheld spectroscope and proceeded to go through each lamp in turn, so people could see the difference between the spectra. It was great and the audience were really getting it. He then did a great demonstration of what it's like looking at the stars - he switched on all of the lamps at the same time, so the people could see that there was a lot of information, as the spectra overlap. He explained that even though there is lots of information from one star, scientists are still able to distinguish the different chemicals.

Looking at the spectra of different lamps

Next, Juan used a portable spectroscope he had with him to show the line spectra on the screen. This was great as he had already explained that our eyes only see in the visible region (400 - 700nm) so he was able to then talk about energy efficiency of the different lamps. For example, the halogen lamp is not very efficient as much of the light it emits is in the infrared (i.e. the lamp gets very hot) so is wasting a lot of the light. Also, he showed a white LED and showed that it has a large peak in the blue region of the spectrum, where our eyes don't pick up a lot of light either. I loved this and could really see this working very well in schools.

After the workshop, I headed to the lecture theatre to see Matias BlaƱa, one of the post-grad students, give a talk on the history of astronomy. Of course, it was in Spanish, so I didn't understand all of it, but I really enjoyed it and he got a lot of questions afterwards, so clearly the rest of the audience were very engaged too.

At the end of the day, Paulina took me to talk to Dr Ricardo Bustos, who works with the GAVRT project, a NASA initiative for schools. Chile is the only other country outside of the USA to participate in the project, which involves pupils in schools remotely controlling the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescopes in California. In Chile, this project has double value - as well as being beneficial to the pupils' science learning, it also helps them with their English as they have to communicate with the controllers in the states. The pupils can choose what they want to observe - satellites and planets for example. I really like the fact they can observe satellites as there is so much scope for then expanding the topic to different areas of physics and engineering.

Ricardo is the coordinator for Chile and currently there are 6 schools involved with the project. He is keen to get more teachers involved, but part of the requirement is that the teachers first go to California for 5 days of introductory courses and background information about the telescopes, which has to be paid by the school. Also, it is not financially viable for the GAVRT people to run the course for less than 6 people, so Ricardo has to get at least 6 people to go along. Another reason for having 6 is that following on from the course, not all of them will continue with the project, normally roughly 1 out of 6 will continue.

I could see similarities between this project and the likes of the projects involving robotic telescopes - Faulkes and Bradford - which are active in the UK. The benefit of course with this project is that it's a radio telescope, so the weather isn't quite so much of an issue and the timing of the observations isn't dependent on it being night-time.

On Tuesday, I met Paulina at about 9:30am, with Prof. Ezequiel Triester, and we headed off for one of the regional television channel studios! Ezequiel was being interviewed on a live morning show (a bit like 'Lorraine'!) all about the astronomy activities. It was fun to be in a TV studio and really funny to watch the piece before Ezequiel - the presenters were interviewing some kids, not sure exactly about what, but one little girl was in her tutu and doing ballet demonstrations which the presenters were copying!

In the TV studio

The coverage the activities got was fantastic. There was a short piece of pre-filmed footage, showing nice astronomical images and people coming out of the planetarium very happy. Then they interviewed Ezequiel, which I couldn't hear very well, but the whole piece was probably about 10 minutes long. I told Paulina that in Scotland, the TV companies are only really interested in our activities if it's a really big activity, with a particularly large audience. She has had excellent media interest for her activities, both regional and national TV companies had been in touch and along to film the activities.

Once we got back to the university, I met up with a group of about 6 post-grad students who are all really keen and active in outreach within the department.

I showed them our Deep Space activities and explained the thinking behind them, and how to run a workshop for a class. They were really enthusiastic and are very keen to use the resources. Paulina says they will translate them into Spanish and trial them with some schools, probably by the end of the year. She'll be giving me a copy of the translated worksheets, so hopefully I can get them going in Spain too.

The students asked me more about my job and the observatory, and I told them lots about the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. They particularly liked the fact that the Deep Space resources encourage the class to discuss their findings together, and I explained that one of the outcomes of the curriculum in Scotland is that they should be effective contributors.

After a lovely chat with them, Paulina and I headed for lunch with Ricardo, Ezequiel and one of Ezequiel's post-docs.

When we returned to the university, there were another 2 TV crews (nationals this time) who were filming at the planetarium and interviewing Ezequiel. This time though, I also got interviewed! Paulina introduced me to one of the crew and explained who I was and why I was there, and they thought it would be great to include me in their piece! So, I have been on TV in Chile!! It wasn't exactly a long piece, and when I saw it on the TV I was very embarrassed to hear how strong my Scottish accent is when I speak Spanish! But considering I could barely string 2 words together when I first arrived in Chile, I think it's quite an achievement!

I had such a fantastic time at the Universidad de Chile and it was wonderful to share ideas with such enthusiastic people and to hear of all their activities. I have come away with some great ideas too, for Visitor centre public activities. A fantastic end to a wonderful trip around Chile - I'm really glad I could include a visit to Concepcion, and that it coincided with their winter public activities.

No comments:

Post a Comment