Seasoning Society with SALT – First of the SEADS series.

We were lucky to welcome a very wide audience for the the first instalment of this seminar series, designed for anyone using science and technology to engage communities and stimulate development. We had representatives from UWC’s Physics and Astronomy department, where it was hosted, as well as from the Humanities where long-term community engagement projects also take place. We welcomed members from the speakers’s team at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), people from Stellenbosch University, the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), and others who came in their private capacity. This led to lively discussions, sometimes difficult questions and creative answers from the diverse audience.

Below are a few notes on the talk and the following discussion.

Sivuyile Manxoyi has been working at SAAO for many years and is the manager of the SALT collateral Benefits programme, also known as SCBP since 2011. SALT stands for the Southern African Large Telescope and is the name of the 10-m class optical telescope in the town of Sutherland in the Northern Cape. At the inception of the SALT project, the question was asked whether this was a reasonable investment for a country like South Africa to make. The belief in the societal benefits from the construction and operation of SALT prevailed and, seen as an investment for the country, the telescope was built and inaugurated by then President Thabo Mbeki in 2005.

From the beginning, the SCBP was set up to realise the benefits of SALT to society and to use astronomy as a vehicle for development. Manxoyi gave the audience an overview of the activities that have been carried out since the beginning. From hiring local people in the construction to holding annual events for the elderly in the community of Sutherland, the SCBP has directly and indirectly contributed to communities of the Klein Karoo Municipality and beyond. Manxoyi gave us statistics on bursaries obtained by learners in Sutherland, on the growth of Sutherland’s tourism sector, boosted by the appeal of the stars and the telescopes, as well as some national statistics like participation in science festivals, national science week and running national quizzes, among other things.

Some lessons reported were:

  • For socio-economic development, the key to success is to collaborate closely with local, regional and national organisations and authorities. The more vested parties are in a development project, the more they work towards its success. This is not to say that projects haven’t failed, but failure is quickly forgotten and well-rooted successes produce long-term benefits for the community.
  • For work with teachers, one of the biggest challenges is continuous support for the teachers. They have often completed their training as teachers before the current curriculum was put in place, with astronomy featuring in several topics and school years. It is therefore important to work with in-service teachers to give them the tools and the skills to teach the curriculum. The SCBP has been working with teachers from the youngest grade to matric.
    Another challenge when working with teachers was the prevalence of deeply rooted misconceptions. The SCBP is in continuous conversation to gently correct the teachers misunderstandings of the science. This is something that takes time and patience.
  • For work with learners, the importance of working with the education departments and universities for accreditation was noted. This helps spread the impact of resources and good practices developed by SCBP and collaborators. It was also noted that more is needed than once-off interventions to leave a lasting impression on learners.
  • Culture plays a big role. The meaning of a lot of indigenous names of astronomical objects has been forgotten and it helps dispel the western and colonial perception of science to realise the existence of indigenous astronomical knowledge. Astronomy is not a foreign science, it belongs to the people. This is key for building bridges between communities.
  • The importance of mathematics and of language was noted. Ultimately, mathematics is the language of science and engineering and learners need it to succeed in those studies. In particular, the lack of science vocabulary in African languages was mentioned as a challenge.
  • When working with communities, teachers or learners, any event is astronomical. There is no need for something extraordinary like an eclipse, just talking about the sun and moon is already something significant. Astronomy outreach is big, whatever it is!
  • The challenge of evaluating the impact that can directly be claimed by any intervention was also discussed. Unlike laboratory science, one cannot control all the variables when working with communities. The mandate of the SCBP is also to do things, with little room or time for monitoring and evaluation. This was really a call for more collaboration with social scientists and evaluation experts. As an example the difficulty of following up on youth that have been exposed to SCBP projects for many years was mentioned, even though the team are aware of quite a few success stories of young Sutherland learners who have gone on to study engineering, medicine and other science and technology fields and give credit to astronomy as being the inspiration behind their choice and dedication.

After the presentation, the audience had a chance to ask questions. Some good ideas and suggestions came through such as:

  • Brokering study spots for Sutherland youth at UWC. Those youths become natural role models for other learners in the community
  • Find ways to include indigenous knowledge beyond storytelling and the recognition of names of astronomical objects, and include it in the curriculum, bringing it closer to modern science.
  • Embedding South African science initiatives in indigenous festivals, rather than just embedding indigenous knowledge and culture in science festivals
  • Curate and recommend massively open online courses (MOOCs) for the continuous training of teachers, or even creating MOOCs with local relevance.

Thank you again to Sivuyile Manxoyi and everyone in attendance.
Our next seminar will take place on 5 July, watch out for the speaker announcement.

The SEADS team
Carolina, Margherita, Mfundo