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Astronomy at Madikweng Secondary, Limpopo, South Africa

I spent the day of September 18, 2013 talking about astronomy at Madikweng Senior Secondary, a village school in very rural Limpopo province, South Africa.

I met these students ('learners') at Scifest Africa in Grahamstown earlier in the year, when I sat down with them at lunch. It didn't take long for me to realize that these really were some of the best that I'd seen anywhere in SA. Smart, focused, engaged, tons of questions... they were really on the ball. And their teachers were encouraging and helping them all the way. I kept in touch with them, and we worked out a time for me to visit.

Madikweng is a very rural school. It's 90 km from the closest major city (Polokwane), and much of that is on dirt roads. The school has no toilets; students use the grass. Some classrooms have electricity; I don't think that any of the buildings have running water. Very few people have computers; most have cell phones and access the internet that way.

Despite this, the school is truly excellent, with the level of education in math and sciences being very high. The graduation ('matric') rates are phenomenal, and the majority of learners head off to university. I talked with a number of grade-12 students; most had already applied to programs in physics, metallurgy, electrical engineering, actuarial sciences, environmental sciences, etc., at schools like U. Pretoria, U. Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Wits.

I spent a day with them, giving three long talks (with Q&A longer than the talks!), followed by a night-time observing session with two telescopes I'd brought. Usually school is out at 3 PM, but on this day, everyone stayed until 9. Madikweng has 250 learners, and there were a good number who were able to visit from other schools as well, such as Dendron Secondary, a much larger school with great science closer to Polokwane.

I was really touched by the note of one teacher, who said:

Genuinely speaking, I doubt that this school has had an event bigger than yesterday's. The kids were bewildered by your knowledge and brilliance, they say Dr. Throop is genius and loves children. Additionally, there is clear indication in the school that immense interest in astronomy has been aroused. Seemingly every one wants to be like Henry!

Thank you thank you to the learners, teachers, and staff, for having me up there, sharing the day with me, and making it unforgettable!

NB: I should note that while apartheid legally ended here almost 20 years ago, there remains a massive racial divide in SA. Much of this is economic (average white income is some 10x higher than black), and that all stems from education. Most of the township and village schools for black students are very poor, while those for white students (both public and private) are much better. Things are getting better, but there is still such a great disparity that it will take a long time to stabilize. There are some great exceptions to the norm, and if every school in the country was as well run as Madikweng, the landscape of the country a generation from now would look radically different.

Thanks to the US Embassy for supporting this trip.

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Henry Throop

Last modified 11 Jun 2023