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North and South in the Celestial Sphere

Last Updated on Monday, 21 November 2005 12:00
Published on Monday, 21 November 2005 00:00
SAfrica.JPGA RAS-sponsored project has given hundreds of young people in the UK and South Africa an experience of international space science. Two students from Dereham Sixth Form College report.

On 23 July 2005, ten students from Dereham Sixth Form College in Norfolk embarked on an amazing journey that would open the eyes of hundreds of UK and South African children to the wonders of the Universe around them. The students were accompanied by two UK teachers, Michael Cripps and Graham Coleman, and a scientist from Cambridge, Dr Helen Mason.

We arrived to a glorious morning in Cape Town, with the backdrop of Table Mountain and an upside-down Moon! We spent the first day sightseeing around the city, and familiarising ourselves with the new night sky. On the second day the real work began; we visited our first school in a former black township and the response was amazing - the children were so friendly and listened patiently to whatever we had to say! In the afternoon we visited the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory, whose job it is to monitor the Earth's magnetic field and its interaction with the Solar Wind.

Tuesday morning we visited iThemba labs, a facility which uses particle accelerators for research and medicine. Outside, in the grounds, Impala, and Zebra helped to keep the grass neatly clipped. In the afternoon we had another successful teaching experience with the children of Sinethemba High School. The next morning we visited Langa High School, whose pupils started the day with a song for us, they were so enthusiastic and it sounded amazing!

When we were driving to the schools each day, we would pass through miles of township housing, which was a real eye-opener for all our team. Their shacks were made out of all sorts of recycled bits and pieces, but no matter how shocking their living conditions were, the children we visited in the schools were always immaculately turned out and overwhelmingly keen to discover about science and technology.

We finished the week teaching in Cape Town with a workshop for teachers, where they could learn about all the equipment we had brought for them and develop ways in which to explore astronomy once we had left. We gave every school we worked with (eight in all) a starter pack to set up an astronomy club. We also equipped two kit clubs, which will loan telescopes to the schools. These included a couple of hydrogen alpha filtered solar telescopes and space rock sets which contain samples of meteorites - even examples from the Moon and Mars!

At the beginning of week two we were off to Worcester, a town about 80 miles east of Cape Town. Here we met maths teacher Reggie Cesar and four grade 12 students who would be going to Sutherland with us to help teach astronomy to the two schools there. The following day we embarked on the long journey to the very remote town of Sutherland, where we would be staying for the next five days. Sutherland is home to the new South African Large Telescope (SALT), now the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, which is just a short drive of 10Km out into the desert.

The next day we were lucky enough to get a talk from Retha Pretorius, a Southampton University postgraduate scientist using one of the 'smaller' telescopes to research binary stars. Tuesday was our last day teaching in the South African schools; we had all gained hugely from the experience and it made us feel how lucky we really are.

This was also the day we met the head engineer working on SALT, Gerhard Stewart, who told us how the telescope had been built and how it works. The engineering of this incredible instrument is amazing.

Wednesday saw us back at SALT again to meet the lead scientist on the project, David Buckley, and at the time SALT was taking one of its first test images on a globular cluster. It was an incredible experience seeing the image slowly appear on the screen because we were seeing it as it was 1000's of years ago. We finished off our amazing visit to South Africa with a couple of day's sightseeing, including meeting elephants and cheetahs face-to-face and exploring underground in caves.

Back in the UK we are making resources for teaching astronomy in the UK and SA and publishing them on our website We are also taking assemblies and visiting other schools in Norfolk to tell them about our experiences. We have even written a special presentation for use with the Science Centre for the East of England's portable planetarium. This lets people experience the skies in both the UK and South Africa and find out about our different cultural heritages and our scientific discoveries.

On behalf of everyone who went on this life-changing visit, we would like to thank all our sponsors and supporters including the Royal Astronomical Society, PPARC, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, the Science Centre for the East of England, the University of Cambridge, Learning Technologies Inc., Geraldine Hogan, Neatherd International Language College and the European Space Agency.

Stuart Johnson and Richard Hilton, Year 13 students at Dereham Sixth Form College