Last week I visited the South Africa Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town which is home to the IAU's Office for Astronomy Development (OAD). This office has recently been established to deal with issues of science education and awareness in the developing world and how to get people from all nations involved in this effort. Using astronomy as a hook to inspire and excite people about science in general, no matter what their background or circumstances. This is something which is very close to the education and outreach mission statement of LCOGT, so we were interested to find out more.
I was there for a workshop which was sharing the experiences from different programmes and projects (endorsed and run by organizations like IAU, Universe Awareness, Hands on Universe, International Planetarium Society, and LCOGT) which could be used to build on when mapping out how the OAD could tackle this enormous issue. The OAD will work through 3 task forces 1) children and schools 2) general public and outreach, 3) university level education. There will also be a number of self-funding "regional nodes" to coordinate the projects and volunteers, and be point of contacts for the OAD in developing nations.
Unusually for an astronomy workshop everyone had a 2 slide/5 minute limit on their talks (which some adhered to devoutly and others were less rigid about...), to allow more time for general discussion on the theme. There were fascinating talks and discussions e.g Galileo Mobile where a group took two trucks full of astronomy demos to rural places in South America, Global Astronomy Month 2011, International School for Young Astronomers which hosts groups of young people mainly from developing countries annually. During the afternoons we were split into working groups to discuss areas of interest and possible collaboration. I was part of a particularly lively session about what the task force for children and schools should provide, co-ordinate and organize, lead by Pedro Russo from Universe Awareness project. When I heard that the OAD had already recieved over 350 offers of support from volunteers from all over the world, I offered to lead an afternoon session on setting up volunteer networks. This was particularly interesting for me because the success of any large project is very often down to the effectiveness of the self-supporting volunteer community.
This workshop was unlike many others I have attended in that I genuinely was excited about being involved with the ideas that were talked about and could see that everyone was looking at practical ways to help. Certainly something I was impressed with was how much everyone wanted to know more about LCOGT and how ideal our telescope resources are for running programmes in remote places. Much of the developing world has access to at least 3G type of mobile broadband. By working with us through a volunteer community many people can use telescopes and follow investigations who ordinarily would never have access to them.
I came away buzzing with ideas and plans for collaboration with different people I had met during the week.
There is a lot of work for the OAD now to do, but it succeeds in its mission then for many people they really will achieve what their slogan says - using "Astronomy for a better world".
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