Below is an in-depth description of Astronomy for Equity, including why, what, and how, that has been the basis for discussion and planning.
This information is intended only as a sneak peek of some of the plans that have developed.
There are also more programs based on the Overview Effect experienced by astronauts and astronomy as the Overview Effect for the rest of us who won’t make it into space. The planning document for these programs, why we need to unite as fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth, how we can do it, and initial programs will be available online soon.
Astronomy for Equity will use the proven ability of astronomy to promote, support, and create STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education programs. Programs have been designed to encourage students and others in marginalized and isolated communities that lack representation and opportunities in STEM fields. Students interested in science are often discouraged by the lack of opportunities, role models, and support from teachers. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle demanding intervention. Astronomy programs touch on all STEM fields, are available in all communities, including those with limited educational resources, and interest students, teachers, and the public. However, programs are often ad hoc and temporary, do not adequately distribute resources they create, and lack follow-up programs to build on initial investments. Astronomy for Equity will support sustainability and expansion of existing programs, create new programs based on existing resources, and disseminate resources and expertise to the robust worldwide astronomy community.
A lack of opportunity isolates communities, exacerbating their challenges and limiting development and progress in society overall. Young people need inspiration, hope, and opportunity to envision a path towards realizing their goals. Underserved communities are often underrepresented in STEM fields in particular. These problems are usually systemic and self-reinforcing. Students planning on STEM careers can be discouraged by a lack of role models and educational opportunities. They are often dissuaded by teachers, counselors, and parents for the same reasons, thus perpetuating stereotypes. Disadvantaged students require scholarships to attend college. Even when they get scholarships, they are often inadequately prepared. Public illiteracy in STEM undermines support for critical programs for growth and self-sufficiency.
Equal opportunity does not automatically create equity. Equity exists only when all students have equal chances of success. The challenges are even greater in developing countries where STEM training is lacking among teachers, and where facilities for study, such as laboratories, are scarce.
Marginalization resulting from poverty, social biases, disabilities, and other factors impede progress in education and community growth. Marginalized groups need programs that are designed for them, through adjustments in mainstream programs or creation of new programs, to ensure equal opportunities for success. Programs must be accessible, sustainable, and scalable to attract students, qualified STEM teachers, and community support. Bias in the community can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; educators, counselors, and parents steer students in marginalized communities into fields of study they see as traditional among their peers and away from fields where they are underrepresented. Breaking this self-perpetuating negative feedback cycle requires programs that expose students, teachers, and the public to new STEM fields, presents the fields in a positive light, and demonstrates the practicality of seeking new STEM careers.
Astronomy for STEM Equity
Because of the great diversity of challenges faced by each community, universally applicable programs are difficult to produce. But there is one STEM field that crosses the boundaries of all societies and STEM disciplines – astronomy. Astronomy is, and always has been, a part of every human culture. Astronomy is a universal interest, unique among sciences in having active enthusiasts in every country who volunteer as informal public science educators. Astronomy’s “lab” – the sky – is accessible to everyone, and global, national, and local programs have trained thousands of teachers to bring astronomy into their classrooms in countries worldwide.
Astronomy is a gateway to all STEM fields, touching on sciences through physics, chemistry, and astrobiology; technology through computers and data analysis; engineering through telescope design and optics; and mathematics. Astronomy is an important part of STEAM as well, with centuries of artists, writers, and poets finding inspiration in the beauty, wonder and awe of the night sky, the exploration of the cosmos, and the promise of humanity’s future in space.
Thinking and Acting Globally
It’s often said that we should “Think Globally, Act Locally” – consider global needs and then do what you can locally. We can now turn this around and “Think Locally, Act Globally” by implementing proven, adaptable, local solutions worldwide through connections and communities online. Communities no longer need to be defined by geography but can be defined by interest, need, resources available to share, expertise, etc. A centralized program that guides grassroots activism by empowering local leaders and stakeholders is effective and efficient, and adaptable to local circumstances, while providing a well-known and respected brand. In the business world, the franchise model is similar, but the resources and outcomes are different; the investment is the time and effort of passionate, empowered volunteers, and the return is science awareness, education, and support tailored to local needs. The potential of the community of passionate astronomy enthusiasts worldwide has been shown through years of programs. This passion is what transforms a program or project into a movement.
Astronomy for Equity will bring together existing resources, networks, communities, and expertise to create opportunities for individual and community growth in marginalized and isolated communities, empowering local leaders and stakeholders, allowing adaptability to local circumstances, and providing a respected international brand for support.
Categories of Program Focus
Existing Programs: Enhancing Support and Scalability
Astronomy for Equity will collaborate with established programs to expand their reach, increase their diversity, and adapt their solutions to a variety of situations and circumstances. Support from an international NGO can bestow credibility on small, local efforts, increase awareness through local media, and lead to governmental and commercial support.
Existing programs founded by the International Astronomical Union and other organizations, from national to local levels, have leveraged this unique science to create opportunities within marginalized communities through education, exposure to new ideas, and positive role models. Sustainability is a constant struggle for these programs, with needs far exceeding resources, and priorities of governmental agencies and foundations constantly changing. The value of astronomy programs, and the abundance of resources, have been demonstrated, yet its potential remains largely untapped.
New Programs: Creating Global Programs from Existing Resources
By combining existing resources in new ways, new programs can be created that serve additional communities. Resource scarcity is usually less of a problem than poor distribution of existing resources. Resources and expertise often exist but are too narrowly compartmentalized or siloed to reach all who need them. Isolation occurs within academic, geographic, disciplinary, or other narrowly defined boundaries. Local leaders also often lack the expertise or confidence to implement programs using available resources. Multidisciplinary teams that cross existing networks, with collaboration between international NGOs and local and regional organizations, can create sustainable and scalable programs that can be implemented broadly without the limitations of these boundaries. Online, experts can serve as mentors for passionate outreach volunteers, resources can be adapted and distributed, and ongoing support can be provided without the usual restrictions and limitations. There is no need to constantly reinvent the wheel in every locality. These programs empower activists and provide educational opportunities through local efforts, with support from the global community. A broad, diverse central organization can bring expertise and resources to local community leaders, making use of the greatest resources of all – the passion and drive of activists. Such a collaboration can also create new resources that require research and development or initial investments beyond the means of individuals or local organizations, responding to common needs and developing universally adaptable solutions.
Program Support through Community
Crowdfunding is far more than making an ask and collecting donations. Crowdfunding allows organizers to reach larger audiences and allows more people to participate in programs they care about, but younger philanthropists now look for opportunities to be more engaged in programs than just making donations. These campaigns also present opportunities for community engagement where supporters become volunteers and evangelists for the programs they support. Clubs, classrooms, museums, and other groups in developed can be paired with those in other countries to share resources, expertise, and financial support for basic needs that are hard to come by in many countries. Foundations, individual donors, and corporations will always be important sources of support as well. But people-to-people programs for equity, based on compassion and the satisfaction of being able to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate, present real opportunities for reliable, sustained, targeted support that communities offer without the uncertainties and competition of many funding models.
A Sampling of Astronomy for Equity Programs
Category: Enhancing Support and Scalability of Existing Programs
Outreach and education programs created by volunteers quickly reach the limit of what local organizers can accomplish. Developed under the aegis of Astronomers Without Borders with support and encouragement of the AWB founder and President (founder of Astronomy for Equity), AWB-Nigeria regularly conducts astronomy-based STEM camps for girls and STEM camps for children of refugee families who have fled Boko Haram in the country’s north. With operations primarily funded by volunteers, plans for expanded activities are on hold. Stalled momentum risks losing volunteer motivation. Support will include one-time expenses (see Supporting Programs through Community below), such as transportation for carrying equipment and personnel (currently provided by the volunteers themselves), and support in acquiring the small revenue stream required for sustainability. The program will then also serve as a model for others on the continent.
Category: Building New Global Programs from Existing Resources
Astronomy for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Astronomy for the blind and visually impaired (B/VI) is an area where resources abound but are not broadly distributed. NASA’s Space Science Telescope Institute (Hubble Space Telescope) and the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory both create tactile materials to help the B/VI understand the objects of study and physics involved. The International Astronomical Union (IAU)’s Inspiring Stars traveling exhibition utilizes tactile and sonification products for the B/VI. The IAU Working Group for Equity and Inclusion promotes access to astronomy and its use in addressing issues of equity, including repositories of resources, and a subgroup within the Working Group focuses on astronomy for the visually challenged. Academic efforts have focused on this field as well. Several amateur astronomy clubs have developed their own programs for B/VI in their public outreach, while others have expressed interest in starting their own programs. Some have created tactile planetarium domes to allow the B/VI to “see” the sky above them through touch. Despite all this activity, resource creators and potential recipients are separated by both geography and discipline, causing a gap in awareness and poor resource distribution. Bringing this small community together in a centralized, multidisciplinary effort composed of diverse networks, using existing materials and experts as mentors, would build on the passion of all sides and create a program that could be publicized through media and networks, create awareness, make better use of existing resources and expertise, and expand the number of local organizers and B/VI individuals and organizations reached. The return on all these parties’ investments can be maximized, eliminating the continuous reinvention of these wheels.
Affordable Mobile Planetariums
Traditional planetariums reach a small fraction of a region’s population, particularly in developing countries where travel to the facilities is difficult or impossible. Commercial mobile planetariums that can be easily transported and used anywhere cost $15,000 US and up. By sourcing materials with low pricing through large purchases, kits can be created for a small fraction of the commercial cost and distributed throughout the world. The availability of mobile planetariums for education in rural and underserved communities would be a watershed for STEM education through astronomy on a global scale, implemented by local NGOs, governments, and enthusiasts. A project of this kind is discussed in many individual networks, and the expertise to accomplish it exists, but the effort has never been brought together with all the expertise and reach needed. Funding would also require a central organization that can accept funds and manage the project, something difficult for smaller, individual efforts.
A similar effort can be made for “AstroBuses” – mobile laboratories that bring resources to isolated areas and provide STEM education through astronomy. With telescopes, and the sky above accessible to everyone, lessons can continue after AstroBus visits. Once built, AstroBuses require only a few staff or volunteers, along with vehicle maintenance, to continue for years. Independently founded AstroBuses have operated in Ehtiopia, Ghana, and in many countries visited by the IAU’s GalileoMobile since 2009.
The International Space Station (ISS) can be seen passing overhead from almost anywhere on Earth, presenting an opportunity to observe firsthand a product of humanity’s aspirations in space. ISS could not have been built without the cooperation of many countries, making it a living example of the power of collaboration among us. A small device, ISS-Above, alerts users to upcoming passes over their locations. Users can see where ISS has been and where it is going on every pass. Building on ISS-Above’s existing educational program, schools, classes, students, and others could be connected online to observe ISS in orbit together. These connections between students in different countries would foster curiosity, understanding, sympathy, and a sense of oneness as passengers on, as Buckminster Fuller called it, Spaceship Earth.
Informal Educator (Outreach) Training
The need for amateur astronomers to have educational resources has been recognized for many years. Despite many false starts, a program of education and certification of amateur astronomers as public outreach educators has never been widely implemented. Existing programs and organizations can collaborate to create such a program, which would be very popular among amateur astronomers. Better informal science education in both developed and developing countries worldwide would result.
Category: Supporting Programs through Community
Astronomy Clubs, Schools, and Other Informal Education Programs
Astronomy clubs in every country engage in public outreach, educating others while sharing their passion for the cosmos. In developing countries, groups often lack the most basic of resources, such as small telescopes and books. Providing these simple resources to existing programs allows them to do far more with the most critical resource they already have in abundance – experienced, eager volunteers. A few $200 telescopes for an astronomy club, or $2000 for several telescopes and reading materials for a school, returns uncounted hours of ongoing public education programs that foster scientific understanding and awareness, as well as support for science programs and education. Empowered volunteer individuals and organizations also tend to expand beyond their initial plans, providing additional benefits. For those with a reputation or significant online presence in astronomy, receiving appeals for these materials from individuals and organizations around the world is a regular occurrence. A central organization can vet requests and use its reputation and access to western audiences to crowdfund or find other ways to support these widely dispersed groups.
NEW: Campaign to Begin Soon: Astronomy Clubs in Middle Schools in Libya
This project, created by a national organization in Libya with government endorsement, has begun creating astronomy clubs in five cities across the country. After years of conflict, science resources are badly needed. Students, teachers, amateur astronomers, and government officials are coming together bring this inspiring program to the young people of Libya.
A limited number of small grants are awarded annually by the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development for programs that use astronomy to support development. Many more proposals are submitted and approved than the office can fund. Proposals leveraging astronomy education for development that are approved, but not funded, can be supported.
“Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.”
— Kimberlé Crenshaw
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
— H.G. Wells
“Education is the path to a bright future.”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
“It is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about.”
— Buckminster Fuller
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”