At some point in Australia earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to get an email from Pedro Russo, Universe Awareness International Project Manager at the Leiden Observatory. He invited me to come and work for UNAWE. The organisation develops educational resources about astronomy to get children interested in science. Kids are fascinated by the idea of the vastness of the cosmos, stars, planets and our universe (or many universes) and UNAWE provides the right tools and activities for educators.
From teacher training, developing the actual resources and maintaining an active network of educators, UNAWE already organised activities in 45 countries. To quote from their Website: “UNAWE is endorsed by UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and it is now an integral part of the IAU Strategic Plan 2010–2020, which is called Astronomy for the Developing World. This is an ambitious blueprint that aims to use astronomy to foster education and provide skills and competencies in science and technology throughout the world, particularly in developing countries.” UNAWE’s mission reminded me of my experiences with Openmind Projects in Thailand – teaching underprivileged children IT and language skills to spark interest and improve their chances in life.
One of the projects by the UNAWE office in Leiden is “Universe in a Box”, successfully funded via Kickstarter last year. It’s an “educational kit to assist teachers and educators in bringing astronomy and space sciences to 4–10 year old children around the world”. They are sending boxes all around the world (and also sent one to Openmind Projects in Thailand, yay!) which has all you need to make some young scientists get starry eyes.
Among astronomers in Leiden
Astronomy as a subject was new to me and working with educational projects a challenge and a welcome change of settings after a long time in Asia. It also was a massive transformation to my daily routine, as I was suddenly back to a 9-to-5 office day, eating at an university canteen, riding a bike on Leiden’s bike highways and going to after work drinks with my new colleagues.
I arrived in the Netherlands with Autumn kicking in, after 2 month of Portuguese summer, and hot and humid India during monsoon in July. I decided to couchsurf in Leiden and was moving from one place to the other frequently. Couchsurfing proved to be easy and I met some beautiful people. It was strange to be back in the “developed world” though. Everyone rushing to work, smartphone in one hand, coffee-to-go in the other… The greyness of this world clashed with the beauty of a picturesque town, coloured autumn leaves dropping from trees and sunny days luring everyone out of their homes. On a Sunday in the Netherlands, you’ll probably get your boat or bike out (lots of people have boats) and go for a ride along the canal. It’s a very pretty setting in a well organised world and I’m glad I experienced it.
It’s fascinating to think that a lot of people make a living with thinking the unthinkable, generating more knowledge and widening our horizons, studying our Universe to get more answers about where all this comes from. The Leiden Observatory was filled with a whole lot of them, studying anything from theoretical cosmology to researching on black holes or antimatter, developing mirrors to correct atmospherical distortions for photons coming from space. I even managed to hang out with someone working at CERN. Needless to say, I was thrilled to meet some of them and attentively listened to my audiobook of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” on my way to work.
Working on astroEDU, peer-reviewed educational astronomy activities
In Leiden I worked mostly on astroEDU, a new platform for peer-reviewed educational activities. astroEDU is an open-access platform for educators to discover, review, distribute, improve, and remix some of the best astronomy education activities I’ve seen on the web. I reworked a lot of the website’s core to enable responsiveness for smaller mobile devices and tablets. Additionally, I implemented various measures to improve site design, speed and performance, and further optimised the site for search engines. I’m also still writing a paper on SEO for science resources for UNAWE and researched various ways to improve astroEDU’s search engine ranking, technology and communication strategy.
Thanks UNAWE, big hugs to Pedro, Thilina, Erik, Abi and Elena, I miss the office (and the fast Internet). We’ll hopefully be collaborating in the future. Big shout out and thanks to Silvia, Jurriaan and Miri, your generosity and hospitality in Leiden will be long remembered.
I’ll leave you with some photos from Leiden and a weekend trip to Amsterdam. Lots more to say as usual but I’ll keep it to this. Make sure you visit unawe.org and spread the word about this great initiative!
I’m now near Fortaleza in Brazil making my way to work for Piracanga, a centre for human development further south in Bahia. More soon, from South America…