This year’s team consists of Tom, Dayana, Ralph, Silas, Cecil, and Sarah. We’ll be running our annual astronomy-themed workshop this week, for an elementary school in Les Cayes, Haiti.
For our activities this year, we were inspired by two things: a little girl who made a plaster astronaut last year and very earnestly told us it was the first black woman astronaut. Her words made us realize the need to set the record straight and show the children the many role models who they might be able to relate to. Secondly we all watched the movie or read the book “Hidden Figures”.
So while the week will be filled with experiments and activities about astronomy, rocket science and space exploration, there will be many discussions about the contributions of scientists, engineers and mathematicians from a wide range of backgrounds. We’re curious to see how it will be received.
For previous years’s workshops see the links below.
Today was our final day at the school. For our last day, our activity was on Mars Landers and students had the chance to build and test their own landers. For the activity, the students each had a “$500” budget to buy materials like tape, balloons, scissors, string, and cups. Their goal was to create landers that safely got their astronauts to the ground without damage. After a discussion on designs used by NASA over the last 4 decades, students planned their own designs and created budgets that they implemented after intensely bartering for their goods. Once all landers were built, students had the chance to test them by tossing them from the second floor of the school. While some fared better than others, all ultimately made it down. It was great to see how excited all the students were to get to test their own creations and take ownership of something they made.
After finishing up our activity for the day, Fr. Leslie, the principal of the school, treated us to a fabulous meal in honor of our helping out for the week. While it was meant to give thanks to us for our work, we truly have to thank him and the rest of the staff at his school for allowing us to have this opportunity again. We know we are welcome to come back any time.
We finished the day at the school with a seminar for the teachers. We talked with 12 teachers from the school about topics in astronomy and about the activities that we had done with their students throughout the week. We were impressed at how good the teachers were at working with our “fabric of space-time” activity, getting a better orbit than any of us could. We closed the session off with a discussion on how we come up with activities and plan lessons. It was great to see teachers taking notes on the 5E method and thinking about how they can use these activities, and activities of their own, to better their instruction and help the students meet their potential. We hope to be given the opportunity to work with even more teachers in the future.
Day two of activities consisted of designing and testing straw rockets. We started with an introduction on famous rockets, notable rocket scientists and astronauts, and what fuels rockets use. We talked about the Centaur rockets, space shuttles, Space-X, Valentina Tereshkova, Robert Goddard, Mary Sherman Morgan, solid fuels, liquid fuels, and air pressure rockets to name a few things. Interestingly, most students were fascinated by Valentina Tereshkova and the fact that she was willing to travel to Mars, one way. Students were also happy to see that Astronomy Roadshow member, Kate Oram, made it onto the cards.
For actual rocket building, the goal was to make a rocket that could go far and accurately hit a target. Students had 10 minutes to come up with an idea and make a plan, 30 minutes to build and improve their design before testing, and then we spent the remaining time talking about what went well with different designs and what did not go quite as well. We made sure to point out that there is nothing wrong with having to change their designs after testing and that engineers do it all the time. The oldest students even asked about the engineering design process.
We were happy to have so many questions about rockets and were glad to see how motivated the students were to build a winning rocket. Despite not being used to inquiry-style instruction, the students were quick to catch on and try their best to improve their rockets. It is amazing how far fun, encouragement, and some star stickers can take a student!
Hopefully the clouds clear up for our Star Party tonight!
Even though this is my second time coming to Haiti to lead activities with students, I still wasn’t really sure what to expect. Our first activity focused on the Solar System and how gravity plays a role in keeping planets in order and orbiting the Sun. I was unsure of what students would know, or remember from previous years, or how well they would be able to apply the prior knowledge that they had. I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised by my experiences today! All three classrooms, two with 9-11 year olds and one with 13-14 year olds, were engaged and interested in learning, or in some cases reviewing, about the Solar System.
While only the oldest students had any prior knowledge on gravity, or the scientists who made discoveries related to the topic, all of the classes asked questions that made me stop and think. One student asked about what makes a black hole, with a follow-up on why stars collapse. Another student questioned us about dark matter and how Vera Rubin, one of the scientists featured on our daily poster, determined it must exist. Luckily, the activity had already had students rank planets by their orbital speed and we had talked about the effects of distance on gravity so a quick review of that topic left all students with an understanding of Rubin’s work. Continuing on with our narrative of planning a space trip, now that we have talked about what is needed to plan a course, tomorrow we will focus on traveling along that path on a rock. Additionally, tomorrow night is our Family Star Party where students and their parents will be able to ask us questions and look through telescopes.
We arrived at the School to be greeted by two classes of 5th graders, apparently pleased to see us and eager to dive into some astronomy. Familiar faces amongst the children, many of whom we met on previous visits, (this particular class we saw 2 years ago when they were much younger!). Some changes for the better could be seen in the school, which now sports a science lab (equipped with microscopes, and scientific looking beakers, test tubes etc), and library (compete with a books ranging from elementary school staples, all the way up to to calculus and beyond). This is one ambitious and future-looking school, led by Fr. Leslie and his devoted staff, who are always an inspiration to work alongside.
The schedule calls for 2 parallel teams to visit 6 classes in total during the day; visiting the same 5th, 6th ,and 10th grade classes each day.
Today’s lesson began with an ‘extreme astronomy’ style recap of the solar system, with the children pacing out the distances, comparing temperatures, sizes, and gaseous vs rocky. These kids are smart, knowledgeable, and curious; keen to show off their expertise, and get answers to their own questions. Being able to build on our existing relationship was huge, as we didn’t have to break the ice! We were happily astounded that the kids mostly had retained a lesson they received in second grade, and came armed with high-level questions for this follow-on workshop. (for the record we believe the grades are a number below the US equivalent). Lots of “why?” questions, questions about origins, and also many about the conditions needed for life elsewhere in the universe.
From the Solar system we moved to Gravity. Tom’s poster highlighting influential scientists from minority backgrounds and their signal contributions provoked lively and far ranging discussions: Why did we need Emmy Noether to “do the math” so we could trust Einstein’s work to describe the real universe? (and by the way, what did Albert E. actually do?); what weighty discovery did Vera Rubin make- and what does it mean to say that dark matter is invisible, if we see it bending the path that light takes? How on earth did a young Indian student nicknamed Chandra manage to discover the conditions inside the stars (and people actually listened to him)?
We also learned the Neil deGrasse Tyson needs a better agent in Haiti! Not one kid had heard of him, but they are now hoping to see his TV show and visit his planetarium in New York City.
I had been totally skeptical that showing a more diverse cast of characters would spur interest but it sure did.
Left Massachusetts which was cold and wet- with the promise of heavy snow on the way, arrived to sunny skies and 70 degrees in Haiti. This is my fourth trip to the Haiti Development Studies Center in Les Cayes- we flew into Port-au-Prince and made the 4.5 hour drive down to the Center. The drive down is an interesting experience in possibilities and challenges- Haiti is a beautiful island with great beaches and great weather (for a large part of the year), however, it has serious challenges that you also see driving through the narrow streets of Port-au-Prince and the beautiful but not easily accessible countryside. Anyone can see the potential in this place- natural beauty, a friendly and welcoming population, a two hour flight from Miami; but the problems are also just as stark- infrastructure struggling to recover from the latest natural disaster, open waste sites in the cities and a level of poverty that makes one rethink their ideas about what we consider necessities. – Cecil
Monday saw us preparing for the week’s activities: unpacking suitcases full of lycra (AKA the fabric of spacetime – of which more later!), posters, decks of cards for our signature “extreme astronomy” ranking/sorting games, materials to make rockets, martian landers, and books about influential women and minority rocket scientists, astronauts, physicists, mathematicians and astronomers.
Next order of business, to explain our curriculum and (exactly what to do with all the lycra) to Haitian students Dayana and Ralph, and slightly bemused UMass Lowell medical physicist Cecil, who generously donated his spring break to come and participate.
Ralph and Dayana had translated most of the cards into French, but it remained to hold an impromptu seminar on the life and achievements of Katherine Johnson, Valentina Tereshkova, Subramanyan Chandrasekahr, Mae Jemison, Annie Easley, Vera Rubin, Emmy Noether, Frederick Gregory, and others. Researching these pioneers, its hard to see why all are not household names…… well we know why, and that’s the point.
Around mid-day we hosted a team of 10 students from University of Vermont, led by the inimitable Dr Tom, and their Haitian hosts from a vocational/trade school in the mountains an hour’s drive from Les Cayes. Much cross-talk about housing, bio-bubbler and alternative fuel projects of both centers. After 3 hours or so had flown by it seemed we had all learned a lot about what works and as importantly – what doesn’t, when attempting to assist with technology and business development in 3rd world counties. As at home, the situation varies between city and rural area, and so must the solutions.