The West African International Summer School for Young Astronomers (WAISSYA) is an innovative short course in astronomy for West African university students that is designed and taught by a global collaboration of astronomers using educational research principles. The school is designed to give West African science students the opportunity to further develop their interest in astronomy, inspire their scientific curiosity, and enhance their practices of scientific thinking; it is also designed to give instructors the opportunity to exchange educational ideas between West Africa and North America/Europe. The most recent school was held between July 24 – August 5, 2017, at the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute, Accra, Ghana. WAISSYA 2017 was the third edition, following previous schools held in 2015 (Nsukka, Nigeria) and 2013 (Abuja, Nigeria). WAISSYA 2017 was organized and taught by a collaboration of astronomers from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), Centre for Basic Space Science (CBSS, Nigeria), Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, European Southern Observatory, Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics Germany, National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA, Nigeria), University of British Columbia, University of Nigeria Nsukka, and University of the Western Cape.
The school consists of two parallel streams: an undergraduate stream covering the basics of astronomy and space science, and a postgraduate stream focused on radio astronomy research. We design our teaching plans using key principles from science education research, especially teaching scientific thinking intertwined with scientific content, and incorporating standard assessment tools to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. At WAISSYA 2017, the undergraduate teaching activities included the following: (1) the educational focal point: a two-day inquiry-based lab on the Cosmic Distance Ladder; (2) group discussions to build community on topics like why one might study astronomy, careers in astronomy, and gender-based challenges in pursuing science; (3) lectures and problem sets using “peer instruction” techniques (e.g., questions where students vote alone, discuss in groups, then vote again) on the topics of stars, extrasolar planets, galaxies, cosmology, and radio astronomy; and (4) a session where students designed their own astronomy outreach activity.
At each school, we endeavor to measure the effectiveness of the WAISSYA curriculum via standard surveys on astronomy content understanding and scientific attitudes, and qualitative measures like student reflections. At WAISSYA 2017, most students reported having a very positive experience, and we find that students’ attitudes and beliefs about science became significantly more expert-like during the program
The participants of the 2017 WAISSYA Summer-School were 63 students and 15 teachers. From the 63 students, 48 undergraduates and 15 postgraduates, 15 were women and 48 were men. The countries of origin were: 5 students from Nigeria, 2 students from Benin, one student from Senegal, one from Burkina Faso, one from Togo and 53 from Ghana