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Graduate Outreach Activity Aids Tsunami Survivors

by  Jabran Zahid, IfA Graduate Student

three pictures

Top: "Sun-gazing." Middle: The inflatable StarLab planetarium. Bottom: Taking notes about astronomy. Photos courtesy Project Kealahou.

As IfA graduate students, we often share our knowledge of astronomy with the community by bringing the StarLab planetarium and our portable telescopes to various venues. Recently, several of us brought astronomy to a very special group. Aided by Japanese-speaking postdoctoral researcher Tomo Goto, Heather Kaluna, Mike Lum (graduate student outreach coordinator), and I shared our expertise with 24 senior girls from Sendai High School who came to Hawai‘i following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Because their school’s infrastructure was severely damaged, and many of their teachers, homes, and families were swept away by the tsunami, they are attending their high school’s sister school, I-LION, here in Hawai‘i while staying with local families. Project Kealahou, a local nonprofit organization that specializes in helping girls who have been traumatized, planned the astronomy event, which was graciously hosted by UH Hawaiian Studies. Such events allow the girls to bond with each other, learn a bit about Hawai‘i, and provide opportunities for growth and healing.

Tomo and Heather conducted the StarLab planetarium activity. They discussed the difference between the night sky in Japan and Hawai‘i with particular attention paid to Japanese and Hawaiian constellations. They also showed how early Hawaiian navigators used the stars to find their way. As usual, the StarLab was a crowd pleaser.

With Mike, the girls made sundials. Making a sundial requires a conceptual understanding of the Sun’s motion through the sky, something often not considered in our modern, technological age. Mike was able to combine this conceptual understanding with the fun of arts and crafts. And of course, no astronomy outreach event would be complete without observing. Since this was a daytime event, we put filters on the telescopes and looked at the Sun. Despite being in an active part of the Sun’s cycle, we were able to see only one tiny sunspot. Still, the girls were excited to see this blemish and compare it to satellite images taken the day before.

Bolstered by the support of the Project Kealahou staff, teachers, and volunteers, the event was a great success. Despite the intermittent rain and language barriers, we enjoyed this afternoon of teaching and learning. Astronomy will not solve the world’s problems, but seeing girls whose lives have been rocked by tragedy pressing forward was inspiring and a reminder that we all have to do our part. We all had a great time and were grateful to have participated in such a unique outreach event.