Astronomy Day at Dendron Senior Secondary, Limpopo

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!