Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Starlab show for the Southern Hemisphere

On Monday I was invited to accompany Dalma Valenzuela from the Gemini outreach team to a local school with their Starlab planetarium.

I went to the Gemini offices in La Serena for 9:45am - just a short 20 minute walk from my hostel - where I met Maria Antonietta Garcia, Manuel Paredes and Dalma, all from the Gemini PR and Outreach team. The site where the offices are was bigger than I imagined, but as the security officer explained, there are also houses of those who work at AURA on site.

Dalma and I headed off to the school at about 10:15am, and it was only about a 15 minute drive away. The school is in a suburb of La Serena and is for pupils right from 'Pre-Kinder' (age 3-4 years) to about 17 years. It is a school for pupils from economically challenging backgrounds.

Getting the Starlab set-up with eager helpers
Once we found the school and the best entrance - Dalma has exactly the same issues as we do when visiting schools: making sure you get the vehicle as close to the school as possible is always a requirement - 4 early secondary students came to help unloading the van. Dalma has an original Starlab with tunnel entrance, and considering the places she has been with it, it's in exceptionally good condition!

Dalma puts down a sort of soft 'astroturf' section onto the hard floor of the hall so the pupils have a reasonably soft surface to sit on - perhaps something we could consider doing, although many times we are in a carpeted room so the floor isn't too uncomfortable to sit on.

Once we were all set up, the first class arrived. This was a 'Pre-Kinder' class of about 30 students aged about 4 years old. They were quite lively and didn't really follow instruction well in terms of sitting in the right place!! But Dalma is clearly well-used to this and was extremely patient with them. They were very sweet it has to be said.

Dalma did a fairly brief 'show' which started with the star cylinder (of course showing the southern hemisphere stars). Dalma had the Moon visible and did something which I had never considered doing before, but which worked extremely well and which I think we really should do, particularly with the younger years. She has the Moon showing, and explains the phases by covering up a bit of the hole on the cylinder which is acting as the Moon to show half moon and crescent moon. She gets the pupils to shout out New Moon and Full Moon when she shows these phases. Really works well and so simple to do.

After showing the pupils the Southern Cross and explaining about how you can use it to find South, she then swapped over the cylinders to show the pictures of the constellations (this time the cylinder is actually for the northern hemisphere) and she goes through the zodiac constellations, pointing out which ones you can see in which seasons. She also points out Orion's belt (or the 3 Marias as they call it here) and tells the pupils this can be seen in the summer, but to notice that Orion disappears below the horizon at times.

Dalma even got me involved with the Starlab shows. She explained that since I am from the Northern Hemisphere I see different a different night sky to the pupils. I introduced myself, and said that I am from Scotland and then pointed out Ursa Major and Minor, saying that I can see these all year round, but that I can never see the Southern Cross.

The final class getting seated for their show
It was a great experience to be out with Dalma, and to see the similarities in what we do, despite the different hemispheres! Also great to get the idea about the Moon - I think primary teachers would appreciate that addition to a Starlab show.

Dalma and I talked a bit about schools in Chile and Scotland, and Dalma told me that class sizes in state schools in Chile can be as big as 45 pupils, even into secondary school.

Normally Dalma goes out about 2-3 days per week to schools, and if it is to a local school, she goes alone (but always getting pupil helpers to unload). If she is going further afield (she has been to Argentina, Uruguay and Easter Island with the Starlab) then Manuel would go with her too.

When I return to the La Serena area after my time up north, I hope to go out again with Dalma, perhaps to a secondary school.

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