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Nature education: Letting curiosity lead the lesson

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

Through the Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship I was given one clear mandate: connect Tanzania children with nature. In our classes, my kids and I talked a lot about what nature was and why we ought to care about it. In my own private time leading up to this fieldwork, I thought a lot about how to frame nature for our program. Did I want to focus strictly on local animals, to dive into botany and ecology, discuss weather and climate and the changes sweeping across our draught-seized country? Did nature end on the earth, or was it also the stars and the sea?

I decided to let our kid’s curiosity lead. So when our children began asking questions about the planets and the moon, I thought okay the sky’s the limit for this. Let’s incorporate a little astronomy. I chose a broad and wide definition of nature.

With the help of Roger Ledgister, our volunteer astronomer in residence, we translated citizen science on the solar system into Swahili. We contacted Astronomers without Borders and Telescopes for Tanzania. And after months of planning, last Saturday a Tanzanian astronomy named Elineema came to visit our site. A high-school teacher by trade, he quickly set up shop in our classroom with big inflatable planets, telescopes and space-ship stickers. We rang the bell and he kids came running in. First, he took them outside in groups to view the sun through protective glasses. We talked about why the sun is important for life on earth, why it has spots and flares, and why you never ever look into its glow directly. We then went inside and together the kids formed a human solar-system. Elineema animatedly explained how the planets rotated around each other as children twirled in on centric circles. He answered their questions about life on other planets and how life on ours began. We ever touched on evolution, a tricky topic in this country. At lunch, the kids rushed from the classroom giggling and energized, wearing space-ship stickers and wide smiles.

Back in our office, Elineema explained his organization in Arusha- Organization for Science Education and Observatory (OSEO)- and its role in promoting scientific curiosity among Tanzanian civil society. He talked about their new public observatory and the difficulty of sparking scientific discussions in a country with a 67% literacy rate. We promised to visit and he promised to come back to teach monthly, teaching the kids and in the process showing our own teachers on explaining scientific topics in a more engaging way. My dream, I said over lunch, is to raise a generation of future scientists, so that Tanzania people can lead research in their own country. Elineema grasped my hand excitedly and said “Tuko pamoja, tuko pamoja kabisa.” We are together, exactly.

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