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Astronomy Day at Dendron Senior Secondary, Limpopo

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Dendron Senior Secondary is a public high school in the rural South African province of Limpopo. I spent a day there giving astronomy talks, working with their Astronomy Club, and setting up a new telescope at the school.

For several years, I'd heard stories of a high-achieving science-focused school named Dendron in Limpopo. I'd met a few students from there at SciFest Africa in Grahamstown in 2012. And I spent some time with two of their teachers at other events in SA. But I'd never been to the school. After three years in SA, our time is coming to an end, so I wanted to get a chance to visit before we left. Conveniently, my friend Mr. Charles Wasswa, a physical science teacher at Madikweng Senior Secondary elsewhere in Limpopo had recently moved to Dendron. He invited me to spend the day at the school in May 2015.

The school has grown hugely over the years. It now has 1200 students, mostly from the neighboring communities. The high school graduation rate (the 'matric' exam pass rate) was 100% last year -- a rarity in the schools across SA, especially given the huge social and economic disparity between rural Limpopo and well-funded Pretoria / Johannesburg. The teachers push the students hard, they perform well, and a great number of them go on to universities across SA (including at the University of Pretoria, where one fantastic Dendron alum I met at SciFest has recently started).

I gave two talks at the school: one on NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto (9 years down, 2 months to go!), and a second on Astrobiology and the search for life. I'd intended to give a third, about comets (including building one), but the dry ice courier never showed up, so we were missing our key ingredient. While it was too bad to skip that, it allowed us to start observing earlier, so we managed to get a good chunk of the learners looking at Saturn's rings.

The students ('learners') are amazing, motivated, inquisitive, and sweet. They were incredibly enthusiastic and welcoming to having me there. They have a nascent Astronomy Club -- about a dozen members, including a President, a Director of Research, and so on -- which has been hosting sky-viewing parties for other nearby rural schools. (Hey, the SA skies are dark, especially in Dendron!) I brought along two telescopes with me -- one large 8" Meade which we used to look at the sky that evening, and a smaller 4" reflector which I left at the school.

I've worked with a lot of student groups in SA in the last three years. South Africa has a lot of political and social problems from which it is recovering. But the entire community at Dendron is so positive, hard-working, and welcoming, that I know that every one of these kids has the ability and drive to succeed.

NB: The photos during my talks, and the group shots, were all taken by physical science teacher Mr. Eddie... I handed him my camera when I showed up and he clicked away. Thanks!

There are a lot more photos here than I would usually put up... but there were hundreds of learners who really wanted to see their photos, so I wanted to make sure to get as many as I could. Thank you all!


Slideshow (big images)

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The town of Dendron from the air... the school is the set of green buildings toward the top. There are close to 1200 learners there. Why such a big school in a tiny town? It started off as a very small school c. 2000. It was a small school with a great reputation, and it has grown steadily since then. Some of the learners come from up to 100 km away -- they live at the school, and return home once a month.

Arriving at the school

I showed up to the school around break time, as kids were playing soccer outside.
School principal Mr. Matsapola M.K. He has been with the school from the start, and -- in addition to great teachers and parents -- has been the driving force.
Mr. Marvellous and Mr. Wasswa -- two of the amazing physical science teachers at Dendron. I've known Charles Wasswa for several years, having met his learners in 2012 at SciFest Africa in Grahamstown. And I'd heard of Mr. Marvellous (yes, really his name) for many years as a legendary teacher in Limpopo.
I meet up with Desilee (sp?), the president of the Astronomy Club. Eddie is at the center, and he took nearly all of the photos here -- this is one of the few he did not! And Mr. Wasswa on the right.
Outside, heading in to the assembly.

Talk #1: New Horizons

Learners coming in for the assembly...
The Astronomy Club! Eddie is their advisor, and teaches physical science.
Sitting down for the first assembly... around 450 grade 11 and grade 12 learners.
Standing up for prayer and song!
The program for the morning! My New Horizons talk -- which usually I give in about 45 minutes -- stretched out to over three hours! An hour of introductions beforehand, and another hour+ of Q&A afterwards.
The reverend leads the prayer.
And we have many many introductions -- in fact, over an hour of them.
Students from the Astronomy Club welcome me.
Malebo and Arthur.
Sylvester ("not Stallone!"), from the neighboring school, has brought his learners, in the front row.
The district manager.
The district manager for one of five districts in Limpopo -- she manages 983 schools!
And I'm on... time to talk New Horizons.
The Program Manager, learner Tladi Shumba, runs Q and A.
We had close to an hour of questions before cutting it off...
Mr. Mokwatedi, the deputy principal.

Break time.

Time for some more soccer!.
Physical science teachers in their lab.
Mr Makasi, an Accounts teacher.
Mr Kadeya teaches maths.
At left we have Vincent (which is his Romanized name, which no one calls him). I met him a year ago at a youth innovation indaba, and spent many hours talking with him about Dendron and the amazing kids and parents that go into making up the school.
Eddie starts to get the next assembly ready. Mr. Wasswa and Mr. Chikande are outside the staff lounge. And the big box in the sky? That's a water tower for the local Dendron area.

Lecture #2: Astrobiology and the Search for Life

And I'm on for lecture #2, on Astrobiology. This is for the grade 9-10 learners.
Some more Q&A...

Night-time Observing

At the evening starts, we set up telescopes behind the school. I've brought my 8" LX90. This is the security office for the company building an addition to the school (which was allegedly completed in 2012, but hasn't been opened yet).
With the first few groups, we observed Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and the Orion nebula. But it became quickly clear that with a group of 500 kids wanting to see the night sky, that wasn't going to scale properly.
So I parked the telescope on Saturn, and we brought about 350 learners through to see it, until I and the other teachers wore out.

A new telescope for the school

I brought along a small 5" telescope (given to me by my friends Elliot and Emily in Mexico) to give the school. We set it up for the night in the science lab.
I spent the night at a nearby guesthouse (with, astonishingly for rural Limpopo, a 24-hour restaurant, run by some sweet Afrikaaners from the Cape). It was heavily meat-based: my choice of Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Liver, Pork, Ham, Bacon, Boerwors, Sausage, and Tripe.

Then when I got to school in the morning, I walked in and all of the learners were having an 'assembly,' -- i.e., singing. The cheered loudly as I walked in -- surreal and awesome. And up on a pedestal in front of all of them was the telescope. So this was an assembly with 1200 students dedicating their new telescope. How amazing!

There were six more speeches at the telescope dedication: alternating between me and someone else. The teacher would say something, then hand the mic to me. Then back to another teacher, and back to me. And again! I only have so many inspiring 2-minute speeches to give, but the students here are great, they work hard, they can do anything, and it's all true.
With the astronomy club, we set up the telescope around back. This has a polar mount, so it's a bit trickier to set up than an alt-az.
Trying out some eyepieces, filters, finderscope, and so forth.
And looking at sunspots with a bit of solar filter.
I'd gotten NASA HQ to send some educational materials earlier in the year. I handed out a stack of calendars.
Which they loved...
Check out those NASA images!
This is an amazing school. Beyond the year-after-year 100% matric pass rate, they win many academic competitions.
Best name for a city I've seen in a long time...

Group shots...

And now... many many group shots, all taken by Eddie. There was a long line of learners wanting pictures with me, so here they are.
Yes, they insisted I sign their shirts, so I dutifully obeyed...

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Henry Throop

Last modified Tue Nov 24 21:20:19 2015