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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!

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I drove up to the school early Wednesday morning... three hours to Polokwane, then met Florence (geography teacher for 23 years!) there at 8 AM. We drove together the 90 minutes to Madikweng. This is what most of the area looks like. Potential presidential candidate Mamphela Ramphele lives out here; we passed her house.
The school was not large enough to accommodate the crowd, so we used the nearby church (a few hundred meters from the school). As I showed up, the learners were walking over.
Program for the day...
Learners filing in. I was happy to meet up with Ananias, one of the 30 or so amazing kids from Madikweng and the nearby schools at Scifest Africa in April. Ananias had been great at encouraging the teacher and principal to put together the program for the day and make a big event of it.
We are using the church, so we started with a prayer by Reverend Tati.
A bit of prayer before the introductions.
N. P. Lamola is the Program Director.
Charles Wasswa is the great physics teacher at Madikweng! He is amazing and really an inspiration to the students.
D. T. Matlou continues the introductions.
Mr. Mashabela, who is the Bochum West Circuit Manager. There are 11 rurals secondary schools within the Bochum West circuit.
Principal M. J. Mphasha ('Joseph') gets up.
All in all, I had 51 minutes of introductions, certainly a record for any talk I've given!
And I'm on!
Learners in the back, during my talk!
Looks like I'm preaching!
The US Embassy helped me out with the trip. There are a few great US programs to check out, including the Youth Leadership Program and the Young African Leaders Initiative. The embassy has a long list of educational exchange programs for South Africans to visit the US, including these two.

Another great program (not a US government one) is the new MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which will be providing bursaries for thousands of Africans to attend university in the US, Canada, and Africa. Brand new, funded well, so check it out!

I talked about New Horizons, the NASA mission to Pluto.
My great driver / photographer / helper, Ephraim. He took all the photos here at all of my talks. I rarely have photos of myself, so there is an above-average dose of them here.
45 minutes of Q&A -- awesome! The learners here really were the best. The kids are fantastic and very knowledgeable.
Singing the national anthem (which requires five language in South Africa: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English). Sepedi and Sotho are the most common languages in this area of Limpopo. And the anthem wasn't the only song -- click below for another. How often do you hear this at NASA conferences?

Talking with Principal Joseph.
Tallking with the Principal Joseph. All these photos were taken by Ephraim, my driver from the embassy. He's a great photographer and was a huge help. However, I'd set the camera on Manual, so the outdoor shots here were a bit washed out.
Pushing the truck back to the school! I think it has no starter, so it always a requires a push to get it started.
Principal Joseph is great. In the corner are the school's trophies... all academic. The ones in the front are for 100% graduation ('matric') rate, which is extremely high, even for well-funded schools. Most grade-12 students take the matric exam at the end of the year, which is a three-week-long standardized test administered by the government.

Certainly he could be doing other things (he has a master's degree in History from University of Pretoria), but he makes more of a difference here than he could anywhere else in the world.

Florence is the teacher who met me in Polokwane. "I'm sorry I didn't come to your talk -- I was making the lunch!" So all of the teachers had lunch inside: pap, rice, chicken wings, carrot stew, yams, salad.
School cook! I didn't get a chance to have lunch with the kids.
After lunch, I got mobbed.
Talk #2: Astrobiology! This is in the school's newest classroom (science lab), which was just renovated with a grant from Old Mutual.
Lerato, Marks, and Nadine.
More mobbing.
Talk #3: Comets! I talked about a few recent comets visible from Africa (PanSTAARS, ISON), and then we built comets.
Comet in my hands!
To build a comet: dry ice, water, dirt, ammonia. Plus rubber gloves, plastic bags, and a hammer!
Dry ice wasn't available in Polokwane, so I brought up a big box of it from Pretoria.

Here I'm actually pouring on water, not Sprite... there is a big pile of plastic bottles in the classrooms which the kids fill up from the one water tap outside.

Check out SeSi with her comet nucleus!
Mr. Wasswa and a few students!
"Rule #1 with the dry ice: you must not touch it."


Good to see those rubber comet gloves being used!
It's now pushing 6 PM... kids have been at school since 7:30 in the morning. But sunset is soon, and then we'll get the telescopes out!
The school consists of ~3 small brick & concrete buildings. There's one water tap, outside.
Sun going down...
A lot of these pics were taken by the students, on my camera.

They're taking more pics with my big SLR as I'm relegated to my iPhone.

Always time for a bit of moonlit soccer...

And... stars! It was a full moon, so not much in the way of dark-sky objects -- or even constellations. I brought two telescopes: one for the Moon (here), and one for Saturn. That's Venus and Saturn you can see in the sky next to each other, upper left.
Big telescope on Saturn. 250 kids lined up to see it, and two hours later (just as it set at 9 PM!), everyone had seen it. Easily visible rings and Titan.
The line for the moon moved much faster... it's bigger and easier to see!
Moon through the small telescope. Taken with my phone -- I just held it up to the eyepiece.
If only!

Nimrod is a recent graudate of Madikweng, now teaching high school science himself in Joburg.

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Henry Throop

Last modified Wed Oct 2 22:04:19 2013