Science@Berkeley Lab nameplate Berkeley Lab logo
June, 2007
Into Africa: Hands-On Universe Holds Teacher Workshop in Kenya

For high school students in the Republic of Kenya in Eastern Africa, stargazing is about to get a serious upgrade. Coming to Kenya this year is Hands-On Universe (HOU), the international award-winning educational program funded by the National Science Foundation, which teaches astronomy, math, and science to primary and secondary level school students by bringing them professional-grade telescopic images of the universe. On May 10th and 11th, HOU held an internet teleconference workshop for nearly a dozen teachers at Kenya High School, a national residency school for girls. This was the first HOU workshop ever held on the continent of Africa.

Science image Spacer image
Teacher Susan Murabana with a Kenya High School student  

"The HOU teachers' workshop in Kenya is an opportunity to bring to African students the wonder and excitement of astronomy," says Berkeley Lab astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate George Smoot. "HOU motivates young people to learn more about astronomy and related scientific and technical topics, and enables them to develop skills that will help them succeed in a modern society." HOU, which began at Berkeley Lab and is now under the Lawrence Hall of Science, will soon be headquartered at a cosmology educational center being established by Smoot.

HOU was started in the early 1990s by Carl Pennypacker, an astrophysicist and colleague of Smoot's at Berkeley Lab, when he began providing high school students with star images from the Leuschner Observatory of the University of California at Berkeley. The students used these images to make actual cosmology discoveries, including asteroids and the first light of a supernova. Pennypacker has since expanded the program, and today HOU reaches more than 1,500 classrooms across the world.

"HOU has been tested in more than 18 nations over the last decade," Pennypacker says. "It is based on a number of successful educational technologies and easily holds the potential to reach millions of young people and a hundred thousand primary- and secondary-level teachers. HOU students are excited and inspired about the universe, and their engagement in challenging subjects can advance all society. With the HOU program, we're confident we can reach our audience in a sustainable way with powerful, inspiring, and engaging science education. Our current goal is to reach 100 nations within five years."

HOU's inaugural event at Kenya High School was organized by Pennypacker and Susan Murabana, a computer programmer in Nairobi, who is currently studying astronomy at James Cook University in Australia. Murabana became involved with HOU through Hakeem Oluseyi, a former colleague of Pennypacker's at Berkeley Lab, who is now an astrophysicist at the Florida Institute of Technology. Murabana and Oluseyi met while both were participating in the 2002 Under African Skies Eclipse Expedition, which was sponsored by Cosmos Education (CE), an international nonprofit organization dedicated to improving science education in developing countries. Today Murabana and Oluseyi are working closely with Pennypacker to bring HOU to Africa.

Spacer image Science image
  From left, a globular cluster, the Eagle Nebula, and the Whirlpool Galaxy are examples of the images teachers and students can obtain in their own classrooms through the Hands on Universe program. (Photos by HOU teachers, NOAO Kitt Peak)

"I have been working as a CE volunteer for the past five years to promote science education in sub-Saharan nations, visiting schools and engaging students, and meeting with community and political leaders in South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya," says Murabana. "My main reason for picking Kenya High School is that, as a national school for girls, it has girls from all over the country. Our goal is to use Kenya High as an HOU training ground, which will allow us to invite other schools with fewer facilities into the program."

Adds Oluseyi, "The educational level and the technological infrastructure level in Nairobi — Kenya's capital and one of Africa's largest and most prominent cities — are appropriate for a project like HOU. Nairobi classrooms are ready for the introduction of research methodologies in the cutting edge sciences, while working with real data that HOU provides."

Kenya High has three computer labs with a total of 70 computers that are all networked to a server. While the school does not have internet access, the UUNET hosting center in Kenya agreed to provide free internet service for the workshop. The HOU Kenya High teachers' workshop was teleconferenced from Berkeley Lab via SightSpeed, Inc., a free internet video and voice communications services provider based in Berkeley.

The program was conducted by Rich Lohman, a veteran high school science teacher and HOU trainer, with assistance from Pennypacker. The program included a combination of PowerPoint lectures and computer activities using HOU software and astronomical images, plus an assortment of supplemental exercises. Among other things, teachers learned how to measure size and distance in space, how to track objects as they move across the sky, and how to plot a supernova's light curve.

Science image Spacer image
Rich Lohman (left), George Smoot, and Carl Pennypacker anchored the Berkeley Lab end of an HOU workshop for teachers, a teleconference that linked Berkeley Lab and the Kenya High School. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Creative Services Office)  

"The Kenya High workshop opened up some excellent possibilities for international cooperation and contact, and brought technology and training to the Kenya teachers," Lohman says. "For example, in one exercise we had teachers use HOU software tools to determine the period and orbital radius of one of Jupiter's moons, Io. With that information they then calculated the mass of Jupiter itself."

Completion of the HOU teachers' workshop was a crucial first step toward bringing African schools into the global network of research-based science educational programs. Pennypacker, Oluseyi, and Murabana are already working on an agreement with the British Council to give Kenyan teachers and their students future access to images from the powerful 2-meter Faulkes Telescope on Haleakela, Hawaii. The Faulkes Telescope is the cornerstone of Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, which operates research-class robotic telescopes in Hawaii and Australia.

"The teachers in Kenya really appreciated our materials — the software, the style of teaching, the computer-based and hands-on activities — and they'll be able to use these materials in their classrooms immediately," Pennypacker says. "We all left the workshop with an amazing sense of accomplishment and connection."

Says Murabana, "The students in Kenya are ready to be taken to the next level. The introduction of HOU into Kenya facilitates this step."

Additional information