Mini Episode: “But How Does Astronomy Benefit Humanity?!”
with Tshiamiso Makwela
Hosted by Andy Firth
In this week’s mini-episode of the The Cosmic Savannah, we are joined by University of Cape Town PhD candidate, Tshiamiso Makwela.
Tshiamiso works in the field of astronomy education research, and she explains how she tries to answer some very difficult questions.
What are the obstacles to learning? Is it simply ‘bad teachers’, or is there something deeper? What do the global trends suggest?
We also discuss the perceptions of astronomy in the broader community, as well as the world of possibilities that astronomy and astronomy education research have to offer society at large!
This week’s guest
An artist’s impression of ‘Measurement in Astronomy’; visualizing the difficulties related to quantifying distances or sizes of celestial objects which, unlike measurements performed on Earth, are not performed directly. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Parsec, More Formally: https://astronomy.swin.edu.au/cosmos/P/Parsec
This episode is hosted and produced by Andy Firth
Andy: [00:00] Hello, and welcome to another mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah. My name is Andy Firth, and I’m excited to be your guest-host today, taking a slight break from my work at the South African Astronomical Observatory – where I am currently doing research on the improvement of radio data, which will also be applied to surveys from the MeerKAT telescopes in the Karoo.
Our guest today is Tshiamiso Makwela. Tshiamiso is completing her PhD in Astronomy Education Research at the University of Cape Town, and has a background in astronomy and education, taking us down a very novel avenue in astronomy research. Today we will be discussing the perceptions of astronomy in the broader South African community – as well as what drove her to pursue a career that is often under-reported in astronomy.
When I first met Tshiamiso, I was in my final year as an undergrad student at UCT, and in getting the opportunity to do this interview, I was really excited to find out what the work she was so frequently fetching from one of the printers in the astronomy department at UCT was all about!
In our discussion and interview, we ran into interesting avenues such as the marriage of western and indigenous astronomy, and the impact concepts such as distances in astronomy as a predictor of future success. Especially with a word like ‘parsec’ being thrown around.
To fully grasp the idea of a parsec, I really do urge everyone to lookup the Wikipedia page on ‘parsecs’, as many astronomers have to do from time-to-time just as a reminder. It really does require a visual aid to drastically simplify an explanation in our brief episode alone. And trust me, that really does have the potential to become a word-salad.
For now, we can rest assured that a parsec is roughly equal to three-and-a-quarter light-years. And now, without another moment’s hesitation, let us hear from our guest – Tshiamiso Makwela.
[01:43] [Intro music]
Andy: [01:49] Hi welcome to The Cosmic Savannah, my guest today is Tshiamiso Makwela – hopefully I got that correct?
Tshiamiso: [01:54] Yes – you tried [laughter]
Andy: [01:56 ] Yes – I tried my very best – and she is going to be telling us about her research in Astronomy Education I believe, if my snooping online has done any good service?
Tshiamiso: [02:08] Oh wow you did well, you went online! That’s really good research, yeah!
Andy: [02:15 ] Thank you! So let me ask you the question that most people fear at a party, so: “Why did you decide to study Astronomy Education?
Tshiamiso: [02:26 ] Okay, so I really love astronomy, that’s the start of it, and I’ve always been interested in knowing more about astronomy and just understanding how the Universe works. But, every single time I mention to someone that “I actually love astronomy and I wanna do astronomy”, the question I got was: “But how does that help people? How does that help black people?” It’s sort of like doing something that’s typically useless. Then I got involved in doing some education research in my Honours, and then later on after I did my Masters I just thought: “Maybe I want to do a little bit of astronomy and education”, because for me that brings both the science and the people together; and that enables me to have some influence in the greater part of the education which focuses on people and in that way I am reaching out to people in some way. For me, that was like: “Science is cool, but if I can not necessarily have any form of relationship with this science for me it’s just [sigh].” So that’s why I was really so motivated to try and bring the sciences closer to the people, because it is done by people anyway.
Andy: [03:45] Were you saying, by that feeling you were having, you were feeling rather detached from some sort of application to human-kind in terms of the uses for astronomy?
Tshiamiso: [03:56 ] Yes, I call astronomy ‘the mother of all sciences”, literally because we grew up with astronomy; we have so many traditional and indigenous knowledge from our old people who will tell us all these things about stars, the Moon, the Sun, and that on its own is astronomy. But, we have used that to integrate what we know about the world. When we know when summer is, when winter is, our whole navigation system. The time – just knowing time! I feel like astronomy has influenced our life so much for us to let it be too far away from us at the same time. So I feel like the more advanced we got the more we lost touch with the actual essence of astronomy which we always had.
Andy: [04:46] That sparked a question I’ve always had, which is: “How do you marry two very different, or seemingly very different, studies of astronomy – such as the indigenous knowledge systems as well as this very westernised, highly-documented, form of astronomy?” Have you done any work in terms of how to marry those two spheres of knowledge?
Tshiamiso: [05:12] I haven’t, unfortunately – I really wish to do this one day. But I haven’t really done it. I just know a little bit about certain things in astronomy – like in indigenous language. Unfortunately, for me, I didn’t grow up in the rural areas because then I would have more rich knowledge in terms of that. Like the stories those people tell about the stars, and when you get into astronomy and you hear about these things and you hear they explain these things, it’s just like “Oh my goodness! They just missed it!” So, I hope one day – but I haven’t really done work on that.
Andy: [05:55] So, if I read correctly, your Masters was in astronomy education as well?
Tshiamiso: [06:05] Yes.
Andy: [06:07] What sort of burning question do you have at the moment, when it comes to Astronomy Education?
Tshiamiso: [06:10] At the moment I am actually looking at students, not the teachers themselves. I am looking at university students and how they interact with astronomy content. I am looking at first-year students coming into the university. And we have found out that (I did a study when I was starting my PhD) a lot of students struggle with understanding sizes and distances. Sizes and distances are also two important things in astronomy, because how well you do in those determines how well you actually do overall in the course. How well you understand the content going forward. In our sample in 2018, about 30% of our students couldn’t understand sizes and distances – they were not getting it right. And another result was done in 2014, and we got similar results with them. But, there was another group of teachers and middle-school students (so this is grade 9, grade 10 students) in Norway – and our results were pretty similar to theirs. So, for us it was not about poor teaching – because it’s really easy for us to default to “it was just poor teaching”. But, in this case, we realise it is not just poor teaching. So poor teaching may be a factor, but it is not just poor teaching; and I just thought maybe there’s a deeper issue – like with understanding distances. That’s when I decided to look at distances and how we comprehend distances.
Andy: [08:13] Okay! I think our time is up. Tshiamiso, thank you very much for your time and for explaining the intricacies of trying to convey the concept of distances to learners.
Tshiamiso: [08:29] Thank you very much for having me! We haven’t found the answers of how we can do that for learners, but we are still on the journey! [laughter]
Andy: [08:44] Hopefully running and not crawling! [laughter]
Tshiamiso: [08:47] Yes! We are not crawling anymore, but crawling was very important for us to understand this.
[08:51] [Outro Music]
Andy: [08:57] And what inspirational words to end off our interview with Tshiamiso, a PhD candidate in Astronomy Education at the University of Cape Town. Today we learned that knowledge extends much further than what is said in the classroom, and that factors such as intuitive understanding of distances, learned in youth, play a pivotal role in understanding of abstract concepts in later life.
A question which was often asked my way was ‘how is astronomy useful to humanity’ and it really goes to show that research can have very many unintended benefits for humanity. And Tshiamiso touched on this too, that through research we have the opportunity to gather and collect indigenous knowledge of astronomy, which may serve as a great unifier of the human experience – we all looked up at the sky in wonder.
And that’s it for this week’s episode of the mini- Cosmic Savannah! I’ve been your very happy host Andy Firth, thank you to our guess Tshiamiso Makwela and to you for sharing this very exciting episode with me. Until next time, stay safe everyone!