Spreading science education, one telescope at a time

The following article is from the website of University of California Santa Cruz, where one of the project coordinators is completing his graduate studies in astrophysics.

By Peggy Townsend

If not for a down-on-his luck Mongolian astronomer with a penchant for drinking, 44 schools in that rugged country might not have telescopes with which to peer into the heavens.

It was a chance encounter with that ill-fated astronomer that led UC Santa Cruz grad student Tuguldur Sukhbold from his science-poor country, where he had to build his own telescopes, to the wooded campus in Santa Cruz where he is doing advanced research in astrophysics.

And, it was the opportunities he got at UC Santa Cruz, he said, that allowed him to organize a project that, last year, delivered telescopes to 7 percent of the schools in Mongolia so that science-starved kids might be exposed to the wonders of the universe.

“A lot of these kids will probably never travel to another country, or even travel to a city,” said Tuguldur of a country where horses outnumber people and where science education has lagged in the past 20 years. “Their world view is very limited. But with these telescopes, even if they can’t see the world, they can see the universe.”

Tuguldur, 25, who goes by one name in his country, grew up on the steppes of Mongolia, learning, like many of his compatriots, to ride a horse at the age of 3. By the time he was a teenager he’d moved to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.

“I started looking up into the sky,” Tuguldur said. “I began to wonder what it was all about and where did I come from and why was I here. I thought I might get answers from science.”

The difficulty was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had strong influence and financial ties to the country, Mongolia’s educational system took a hit and science was one of the casualties.

Tuguldur began building his own telescopes using instructions he found on the Internet. He formed an astronomy club, and he and his friends peered into the heavens. Still, he understood that science was a dead-end job in Mongolia and he prepared to become a lawyer.

But that meeting with the ill-starred astronomer changed everything. The scientist had once been part of a project started by the University of Arizona that searched for asteroids from posts around the world. He’d been given a telescope but, one night, the device was struck by lightning and the project came to a halt.

Still wearing the worn University of Arizona T-shirt he’d been given by the American scientists, the astronomer told Tuguldur that Arizona was the center of astronomical research and that he should try to go to school there.

So, Tuguldur did.

He got a scholarship, struggled to learn English—although he was fluent in the mathematics required for physics—and got his bachelor’s degree. He came to UC Santa Cruz for his advanced degrees because of its faculty and “because it is one of the best places for what I do.”

Still, his homeland was always on his mind.

Tuguldur applied for and won a $6,000 grant from the International Astronomical Union. Together with a friend, Purevdorj Davaa, who is still in Mongolia, they purchased 44 four-and-a-half-inch, F/7.9 Newtonian telescopes from which kids could see craters on the moon, ice caps on Mars, the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter.

Some of the telescopes were delivered to city schools, but many went into the rural steppes where raising livestock—horses, camels, goats, sheep, and cattle—is still the central occupation.

“I had this dream that it would be really great to get a lot of money and bring telescopes to Mongolia, especially to the countryside,” Tuguldur said. “I thought that would be life-changing. I wanted to share the joy.”

Besides delivering the telescopes, Tuguldur and his partner also did several teacher trainings on Skype and wrote a manual in Mongolian that showed students how to use a telescope and gave them some basics in astronomy.

Next year, he and his friend hope to deliver 50 more telescopes and, one day, start a nonprofit that would press for more science education in the Mongolian curriculum.

Said Professor Greg Laughlin, chair of UC Santa Cruz’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, “Tuguldur has consistently shown the courage, brilliance, and creativity that we here at UC Santa Cruz Astronomy all aspire to. His efforts are pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, and, at the same time, are uniting people with common interests from across the globe.”

“I am, in a way, very privileged,” Tuguldur said, sitting on a couch in a quiet annex behind the Natural Sciences II building on the UC Santa Cruz campus. “When I look back in my country, I see a lot of people living just to get by, day-by-day. They don’t have the luxury of spending time and resources to wonder about science.”

He wants to change that, one telescope at a time.