Space4Women Mentor Project Spotlight: “The Travelling Telescope. Meet your universe.”
By Susan Murabana Owen
My name is Susan Murabana Owen, I am a current Space4Women Network Mentor and the CEO and co-founder of The Travelling Telescope, a social enterprise that works with schools to promote astronomy. The idea for our organization was inspired by the realization that the telescope has been around for more than 400 years and yet most people have not had a chance to look through it. The Travelling Telescope team is trying to change that by taking our large portable computerized telescope across Kenya to visit rural schools. For me, it is very exciting because these schools are in beautifully dark unpolluted equatorial skies, with thousands of enthusiastic eager young minds. The Travelling Telescope believes that every student should have a lesson outside under the stars and get a chance to look through a telescope at least once in a lifetime.
A girl from Chumani Secondary School looks at Saturn through our 12 inch reflector telescope
The students’ experience is not complete without experiencing the Travelling Telescope’s 8m digital planetarium, which is also portable. Students for the first time enjoy an astronomy lesson in an immersive world, feeling like they are travelling through space and landing on moons and planets. It is so powerful to see the students get inspired, engaged and excited to learn about science in this virtual environment. We are able to show the students our unique planet through satellite images of Earth - as astronauts have seen it from space - and discuss with them the need to protect it. For example: one of these lesson shows them that whatever plastic waste we throw in one part of the planet could end up in our oceans and other parts of our planet or in the bellies of our cattle, animals, and marine life. Africa has the largest number of youth and they are the future scientists, leaders and decision makers. We hope that the students we connect with become more aware of their space on Earth and in the universe, and the critical role they can play in educating their parents and friends about climate change, biodiversity, and peaceful existence.
During our school trips we often discuss how space is a huge industry waiting for students, irrespective of their career choices. The Travelling Telescope is the youth partner of Airbus Foundation and has run the Airbus Little Engineers Space Workshops in schools. Through this program, kids are able to see that engineers, computer scientists, and other professionals play a key role in the space industry. Airbus Little Engineers is a hands-on program where students assemble a robot, and then perform three challenges; (1) simulate launching a rocket to Mars, (2) communicate back to Earth, and (3) power the robot using green technology. We also introduce the students to the Airbus Foundation’s Discovery Space program, inviting students to build a Moon village using Tinkercad and Autodesk.
The Travelling Telescope team also recently built a fixed planetarium - The Nairobi Planetarium - with a geodesic bamboo dome. I serve as the founding president of the African Planetarium Association, a society connecting planetarians across Africa. Planetaria and science centers play a huge role in disseminating science research and innovation to the public, especially school kids during science trips. With a limited number of planetaria in Africa, we hope APA can play a role in popularizing planetaria and their role in promoting astronomy and space sciences especially amongst youth, providing jobs to young science graduates and providing a creative opportunity for planetarium content from Africa.
With schools currently closed due to the pandemic, my team and I are still able to connect with students through various online programs. One of my favorite activities we have done is the space song we have created with the children who participate in these programs.
My team and I would also like to reach a younger audience with STEM education through music and art. In support of this goal, we also have a bi-weekly quiz called “The Cosmic Quiz” hosted via Zoom and streamed on Facebook live with mainly families and young contestants. And of course, we still share the views of the night sky through our telescope - now via Zoom sessions.