Saturday, June 18, 2011

Giving Astronomy Credit Where It is Due

Recently, on perusing the web (related to the Caribbean and progress in science secondary education), I came upon a paper: ‘Astronomy – The Caribbean View from the Ground Up’, by Shirin Haque (2007, Astronomy for the Developing World, IAU Special Session No. 5- 2006, p. 35). She is now the Head of the Physics Department of the University of the West Indies (in Trinidad), and comes to that post by way of the University of Virginia, where she graduated. Reading assorted articles about her (including talks given on 'Astro-biology') leads one to confirm she is the latest hot astronomy star to appear in the Caribbean. Whether she can sustain a full astronomy research career is another question, and even she notes the past experience of professionals - from Mona to her own St. Augustine campus - is not what you'd call "stellar". Some, like Dipak Basu, probably just realized they weren't able to sustain the level of support needed to pursue astronomy - or get anything published in Ap. J., so just departed for greener pastures. Others, like my former Thesis supervisor Anthony Achong, pursued alternate physics interests like the acoustics of steel pans. (And I still recall the reaction of one solar researcher - from NASA-Goddard Space Flt. Center-at the 40th AAS Solar Division Meeting in 2009, who spotted my poster paper - which included citations from my ground-breaking work on SID flares- and said flatly: "I never even heard of the University of the West Indies before". So I had to fill him in, like so many others!)

But I digress.

What immediately caught my attention in Haque's IAU paper was a typical academic’s fixation on the university environment and experience, which is assumed to be the only valid one. Okay, technically a kind of exaggeration, since she did acknowledge that in all of the nations where the U.W.I. regional universities are based, local (largely amateur) astronomical societies pre-existed. Thus, the Trinidad And Tobago Astronomical Society preceded any professional astronomy activities at the St. Augustine U.W.I. campus, just as the Barbados Astronomical society preceded any remote professional activity at the Cave Hill campus.

In this regard, a major shortcoming of her IAU paper, is that while research and observational work at the U.W.I. regional campuses is discussed, no mention whatever is made of the many research undertakings, observational programs sponsored by The Barbados Astronomical Society, or the serious research which appeared in The Journal of the Barbados Astronomical Society (from 1977- 1991), including one student's analysis of the light curve of a Cepheid variable to obtain its physical properties, assorted analyses of eclipsing and spectroscopic binaries, a spectroscopic study of Sirius, the development of a theoretical model for Epsilon Aurigae, the application of the Dirac Delta function to solar impulsive flares, a numerical model of a two-ribbon flare and translations of several papers from Mexican astrophysics journals. All of which the T.T.A.S. beheld in wonderment and envy! (A note sounded by then T.T.A.S. President Maura Imbert multiple times, who requested copies of our Journal then be sent to her at CARIRI where she worked.)

Apart from this, I was stunned by the lack of attention to detail in Sec. 3 (Education) and 4. (Amateur Astronomy). The former merited barely one paragraph of 5 ½ lines, completely ignoring the enormous efforts to prepare and set up astronomy as a serious part of the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) Integrated Science curriculum in 1978. Granted that over the span of many decades a 3-4 year program can appear like a ‘drop in the bucket’ – but one can’t measure value by duration alone. Intensity of effort also counts and this is a deficiency of perception I plan to rememdy in the near future by way of a short book detailing the rise (and fall) of Caribbean Secondary Astronomy education.

Yes, it's true that- as Haque notes, as well as others (CARINA, or the Caribbean Institute for Astronomy) -there are "elite schools and secondary students" which are currently the beneficiaries of some advanced astronomy-astrophysics exposure, but these are insignificant enclaves compared to the thousands of secondary school students that studied astronomy throughout the region from 1978- 1983. And those studies were made possible by the diligent work of the supporting local societies - not the universities, which were mostly nowhere to be found. Thus, in Haque's Sec. 4 it was somewhat irritating to see no mention made of the heroic work and input by many of the Barbados Astronomical Society (including conducting dozens of teachers workshops) to get the CXC Astronomy program off the ground.

Barely a half dozen of us, including local CXC coordinator Clarene Jackson (who died of pancreatic cancer mere months after the first astronomy teaching commenced) and Englishman Colin Lancaster, contributed blood, sweat and tears to get everything ready. I myself not only had to prepare all the students and teachers materials, but also the many workshops conducted including the launching venues in Georgetown, Guyana and Castries, St. Lucia. I also took it upon myself to organize and launch S.T.A.R. (Student Team for Astronomical Research) to give more ambitious students the chance to see and experience how real astronomy research was conducted. The more able students also assisted in imparting needed background to the newcomers - see image attached).

Why did the CXC Astronomy Curriculum and its role in secondary education collapse after only a few years? There are dozens of reasons that have been considered and proferred by everyone from CXC insiders, to media pundits and examiners, to those of us who actually worked on the syllabus and preparing the teachers. For me, it comes down to one major reason: examination questions which neither reflected the objectives of the course curriculum or what real astronomy is about. (And it was only later I learned that a small clique of largely chemistry teachers in Trinidad were responsible for writing the questions!)

One particularly idiotic example from the first exam paper in 1978:

You overhear four men having a discussion about the shape of the Earth.

a. The Astronomer says he knows that the Earth is nearly spherical, but flattened at the poles. He knows this is true because he took some measurements of the stars.

b. The Sailor says the Earth is round as a ball. He knows this is true because he sailed westwards and went on sailing that way until he ended up where he started from.

c. The Philosopher says he knows the Earth is flat. He knows this because he read it in a lot of books.

d. The Astronaut says he knows the Earth is pear-shaped. He knows this is true because he took a photograph on the way to the Moon.

Compare and contrast the four claims and thereby explain which you believe to be the most correct, and give your reasons.

When I checked with most students after the exam, most were ready to either cry or take to the streets with torches and pitch forks. I was so infuriated by what I saw as a betrayal by the examiners that I dashed off a letter to the press, pseudonomously of course (since curriculm and materials creators were not to make direct public statements or criticisms)

The sad and sorry fact is that given absurd exam questions like the above, astronomy soon became merely an "option" of the Integrated Science course. By year 3 nearly all students (and teachers) had opted to take the chemistry segment rather than one for which the questions were totally off the wall and unpredictable.

Nonetheless, whether failure or relative success (because of how many students were able to see the night sky in our telescopes during the workshops) no one should belittle or minimize the overall impacts to Caribbean people.

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