AstroSense@OAD – by Wanda Diaz

I arrived in South Africa on the 15 of March 2014, delightfully met by an old, young-by-age and full-of-life acquaintance from Ethiopia, Dr Solomon Belay! A colleague from Zambia, Mr Prospery Simpemba, and another from Namibia, Dr. Michael Backes, were also there, getting ready to attend Scifest Africa, the biggest science festival in Africa, where 70,000 students meet in Grahamstown to be inspired, enquire and dive into science. We were all invited by the International Astronomical Union ( IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) . What is this office’s aim? To use astronomy to make a better world!!!!!!!!! Isn’t it perfect? The director, Kevin Govender, and the administrator, Ruth Loubser-Maart lose no time and keep that office running like a well oiled machine.
Upon arrival at Scifest we met with Anja Fourie (director). We were warmly welcomed and were given the honour of addressing the audience. Anja trusted us with the visit to two schools at the outskirts of Grahamstown. The kids were delightfully high spirited and role models of good behaviour for kids around the world.  We were gracefully invited to the office of the Deputy Minister for Science and Technology Michael Masutha. There, after Scifest, we exchanged ideas and created a professional human relationship I sure hope to last until the end of time. As you may know the deputy minister for science and technology in South Africa is Blind/Visually Impaired (B/VIP). To meet such a great professional and human being changed the way I perceive life.
Together we went to the Pioneer School for the Blind in Worcester! And the Athlone school for the Blind in Cape Town. This opportunity gave me the chance to get a taste of the needs of the B/VIP children in South Africa. Vividly, good questions arose from every corner of the room after our presentations. The children asked, asked, asked!!!! …. And we were there to fulfill the aim of astronomy “to owe” [1]

In my opinion, and after meeting a diversity of blind people on the streets, South Africa is moving forward and seriously leveling all the fields for people with disability to contribute (from this point on I will not use the term disability anymore, the term “ different learning styles” will replace it from now on in this document). It has taken long to achieve. It is my understanding that it is not a fictitious leveling, scratching the surface of the equality of all humans. They are trying to change the situation from the very roots, increasing employability, skill acquisition and using the media fully to increase people awareness. I have never seen the like of it before. Athlone School for the Blind, armors the students with the life and work skills needed for them to transition to after-school life. They learn a vocational career and we were informed that some of the B/VIP students from the Pioneer schools for the blind have gone to University to pursue technological fields.
The students I visited were not mainstreamers, as these particular schools are specialized for students with different learning styles. I had the honour to home-visit a blind student who is either the only one, or one of the handful of students that in actuality has chosen to mainstream. Then, students may opt to mainstream given they know, that mainstreaming is an alternative. The educational system provided the technology for the student to be successful. Of course I noticed that family support had played a vital role in this child.

It was pervasive that science was going down in the VIP/B schools (as verbalized by the directors). The teachers, students and directors want to do it, they just need the skills to do it (as verbalized by the directors). “ To bring this science to their world” – not forcing them to make relations between objects in space for which the dominant sense is the eye, but allowing them to establish relations among things changing over time, for which the dominant sense is the audio [2] (lthoff 2004).

The latter served the OAD to start pondering the notion of creating lessons employing the utilization of music notation to calculate parameters related to astronomy. It worked well to design a lesson using the tempos and cleffs to calculate area under the curve. This will benefit the sighted students by using the conceptual understanding of music to develop understanding of astronomical events and perform high profile calculations. According to Courier 2012 (Paik 2012), students start to struggle with mathematics on third grade and this struggle may continue to high school if not addressed. A multimodal approach to mathematics instruction may be a viable a solution. I proved during my PhD that using multimodal perceptualisation augments the sighted sensitivity to the perceptualisation of signal in space science data. And sensitivity increases the more the data is masked by noise or the signal is away from the direction of gaze. These perceptual tools will be very useful as data sets in astronomy become more ambiguous and larger.

The OAD engaged in improving data analysis and with it, leveling the field for people with all kinds all learning styles to contribute meaningfully to science and working together supporting each other towards the discovery of the unknown. Astronomy is as old as human enquiry, it is a Human Endeavour we all may contribute to and no one will be excluded or isolated. As Kevin Govender said once: You just have to set your mind to it! Thank you South Africa!!!!

lthoff, Marc O. Ernst and Heinrich H. Bu¨. “Merging the senses into a robust percept.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 8, no. 4 (April 2004): 162-169.
Paik, Susan Joan Courey & Endre Balogh & Jody Rebecca Siker & Jae. “Academic music: music instruction to engage third-grade students in learning basic fraction concepts.” Educ Stud Math, no. 81 (2012): 251–278.

[1]   Learnt this phrase from Professor Patricia Whitelock who kindly shared a poem containing a phrase alluding to the vow of astronomers “to owe” during a farewell lunch.

[2]  The ‘Modality Precision’ or ‘Modality Appropriateness’ hypothesis by Welch and Warren  is often cited when trying to explain which modality dominates under what circumstances. These hypotheses state that discrepancies are always resolved in favour of the more precise or more appropriate modality. In spatial tasks, for example, the visual modality usually dominates, because it is the most precise at determining spatial information. For temporal judgments, however, such as that studied by Shams et al. and others, the situation is reversed and audition, being the more appropriate modality, usually dominates over vision.

(This guest blog was written by Wanda Diaz Merced, a visitor to the OAD who worked on the AstroSense project and paved the way for the OAD Visiting Fellowships programme. Views expressed in OAD guest blogs may not necessarily represent the views of the OAD.)