di Rosa Doran
Working with people from all corners of the Earth is a privilege that only a few people can have. Well, I am one of these people. I have travelled to more than 40 different countries, in all of them to meet amazing people, in general, related to education and/or research. When you meet all these different cultural and social realities you begin to realize that the meaning of accomplishment, happiness, health and well-being, has a completely different sense to different people in different environments. Once, after visiting some rural areas in India and some major cities as well, I commented with a friend there that the happiness of people, despite the very challenging conditions they might live in, is something that you find wherever you go. His answer totally surprised me. With his open smile, he turned to me and said: “Yes, I wanted to ask you that. What is wrong with you Europeans?” That was completely unexpected to me, it reminded me that, no matter how much we know, we keep taking everything for granted.
This time, that wakeup call comes from an almost invisible menace, a virus, that is just trying to do what they do best, replicate. The imaginary safeness and invincibility that we might think we have vanished in a matter of months, if not days. Maybe this is a good time to rethink our understanding of what it means to be humans.
We are just one of the more than 1.5 million species on this planet. About half of our body is composed of bacteria that cohabitate with our own cells. So if you think about these numbers you might wonder. What makes us think that we are in control of everything?
Working as an educator, more specifically as a teacher trainer for almost 20 years in science outreach and education, in particular in the field of astronomy, made me understand that, unfortunately, people have very little awareness of what is really the meaning of being humans. Just to give a little perspective, our planet is one rocky body among the thousands of other bodies in our Solar System, the only one that can harbour life as we know it.
Figure 1. Planets and dwarf planets of the solar system with sizes shown to scale (distances not to scale) © NASA
But our star the Sun is just one among billions of stars in our galaxy and imagine that we know now that most of them have planets orbiting them.
Figure 2. Stars in the Milky Way (Creative Commons CC0)
The beautiful Milky Way, our home, is one galaxy among billions of galaxies in this Universe, that we don’t even know if it is the only one. In figure 3 you can find one of the most amazing pictures ever taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. This image comes from a very tiny area in our night sky. The result of this image is breath taken, every single object in this image is a galaxy. Some closer, some more distant, some younger than our Galaxy and others much more older.
Figure 3. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (©NASA)
People might think that this is interesting but very far and unrelated to them. That is the first symptom that humans are not really getting the full picture, in other words, not really understanding what it means to be humans. That we need to preserve the environment so we can survive as a specie! That we are fragile beings pretending to be invincible and assuming that an aggressive capitalism and money-making enterprise is the solution to all our problems. Well, guess what. It isn’t !!!! These are just symptoms of a society that lacks the basic capital asset, the science capital, the asset of one’s knowledge and understanding about science and its importance for our daily lives. Just watch 5 minutes of news and we immediately understand that the science capital of people, in general, is really very low. Lots of people take as truth the words of unwise leaders or pages of fake or incomplete/incongruent and illogical news. The low critical thinking capability of some people is terrifying. Fake news becomes more and more abundant and crowds of uneducated people believe in everything they hear. What is the solution for all this mess: EDUCATION!
The COVID-19 lockdown is bringing to the surface the lack of preparation many teachers have when it comes to put the students at the central stage. But it also means that educators have now a chance to reinvent themselves. Even those that are more reluctant to abandon traditional teaching.
So how can we concretely help? Teachers can now use the possibility to be the facilitators of learning and drive the students towards the construction of their own knowledge navigation experience.
Various projects nowadays have supporting materials, ready to use, that educators can benefit from for their own professional development and to fill the lack of face-to-face interactions. But education is not a journey that teachers have to take alone, “it takes a whole village to raise a child” (African proverb). During these days families are the most important support students will have to accomplish their goals for this school year. But this should not be an isolated case where families are involved in their youngsters learning. I am not talking about sitting beside them and help them with their homework, I am talking about enriching their experience with in house expertise, by showing them the amazing and unique things this world has to offer, by enchanting them with arts and history, by showing them how math and science are all around us every day. Students should be aware of the wealth of their surrounding and also the challenges knocking at their doors. The community where they live is part of their reality, so nothing more relevant than involving the young members in the understanding of the existing problems and perhaps they will be the ones triggering the wisest solutions. Schools should become the beacons of knowledge with students leading the way.
This century is the century of space exploration, data mining, artificial intelligence, blockchains and many other words that so far doesn’t seem very real in our lives. Take for instance space exploration. What are the first images that come to your mind, an astronaut in a spacecraft exploring our universe, right? Well, space exploration is so much more than that. Space exploration requires a lot of different competences and experts of various fields: engineers, technicians, health science experts, astronauts, designers, medical doctor, mathematician, flight controller, biologist, geologist, astrophysicist, psychologist, nutritionist, etc. The options are limitless. So a future related to space is not so unimaginable for children already in school nowadays. We might even say that the first person to set foot on Mars is already born. In the project Our Space Our Future a series of resources to inspire students, to present the impact of space in our daily lives to motivate them to consider a career in science are being produced.
Do you often observe a nice night sky? How many stars can you see from your window? That brings to mind another big loss humans are suffering, a silent and very dangerous loss, the loss of the night sky. Let’s be honest, how many times have you seen the milky way with your own eyes? If your answer is many, then you are a lucky person, most of the population of this planet can’t even see many stars. That is due to light pollution, that’s right, light pollution. This problem is caused by poor street lighting. Lamp posts that don’t fulfil their role, illuminating the street. Lights from the streets often invade our houses and prevent many people from having a good night of sleep. Our body needs to have a minimum of hours every night of deep sleep. Light pollution can interfere with our sleep and is being associated with several health issues such as breast and prostate cancer, obesity, depression and many other diseases. It also greatly affects the flora and the fauna, leading to a change in habitat, migration patterns of animals and even leading to the extinction of many species. For astronomers it is a nightmare, many observatories are no longer used for research as the city lights surrounding them make it impossible to have good quality in the images of the sky thus preventing researchers from using it. For humans, it means losing our connection to the cosmos and eventually forgetting the meaning of being humans.
I could go on with suggestion, ranging from paper-based experiments to virtual and augmented reality experiences. With a smartphone in your hand, some links, critical thinking and a spice of creativity the world is yours. But wait, somewhere in this article I said that this might not be possible to everyone. There are children, families, teachers out there that don’t have any digital tool, this wonderful experiences that I have been suggesting won’t be possible for them. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have wonderful experiences and possibilities to overcome themselves, but life for them can be much more difficult. If we think again, that we live in a unique planet, with the perfect conditions to harbour life, where technology can help us make everything so much powerful and easy for everyone, then why is it that we still have as a goal for this millennium to face issues like no poverty, zero hunger, good health, clean water and so many other very important goals. They are 17 at the moment. They are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations. We should all be very embarrassed that such goals still exist. It is our responsibility as humans living in an amazing planet to ensure that this is reached very quickly. We can do this in all our actions, every day, thinking on the planet in a united way, with tolerance and solidarity and never again taking everything for granted.
Figure 4. UN Sustainable Development Goals
It is normal to think, well, I am only one among 7 billion people on this planet. How can I make such a difference? Well, I have many examples to share, things that I have shared and experienced and that really changed the life of many people. It is all about people and the choices we all make. It only takes one person… sometimes one person, in one street, in one country, to make the world completely different. I can give you a concrete example. I will share with you a story that is changing my life forever.
I live in a little corner of paradise, I knew this from the very moment I chose to live here. A unique place, filled with nature. From my house, I can see the ocean, the trees, hear the birds all day long, walk in nature and so much more. I knew I liked my neighbourhood but I didn’t know my neighbours. I still don’t know them but now we all know we exist and we all feel like diamonds. About a month ago some of us decided to go in our balconies and start clapping as a thank you for all the people out there saving lives and keeping us healthy, fed and safe. One day we were surprised by the sound of our national anthem. The next day, after our claps we hear one of my favourite music, “Imagine” by John Lennon. It was really nice to hear the unexpected sound coming from the house of someone we didn’t know. After a few nights, we hear Zeca Duarte, living one block away from where I live, saying good night to all of us from the window of his apartment and using his speakers, a microphone and his infectious good energy.
Figure 5. Zeca Duarte, the creator of “Somos Todos Diamantes” (We are all diamonds) © Ciano Ventromille
I discovered by then that there is a group on Facebook to which we can become a member and where we start to know each other a bit better. Our neighbourhood has the name of semi-precious stones. The name of Zeca’s street is “Diamantes” (diamonds). So creatively Zeca decided to name the group in homage for his street and suddenly we became even more precious “Somos Todos Diamantes” (We are all diamonds). His music keeps coming every day brightening our nights. Every night at 21:00 we listen to a music coming through our windows. We know that it is time for all of us to go to our balconies and celebrate various things. People are invited over skype to play violin for us, some members are putting speakers in their windows and inviting their neighbours, in streets that are far from us, sometimes in other parts of the country (or the world), to join our celebration. A celebration to stay at home, to preserve the life of others, to celebrate those that are in the front line, to celebrate life. Zeca ensures that everyone gets cheerful and very aware of the importance of staying at home. We are now, somehow, all connected, much more than we were before COVID-19. We see each other, we make good wishes and hope that everyone will be safe and healthy. We know that one day we will be able to hug each other and appreciate life with friends.
Figure 6. The image that illustrates the group on Facebook
This is the image that illustrates the group and couldn’t be more accurate. A treasure at the end of a rainbow. We all know now that we are not alone. Every day we end by wishing good night to everyone, that everyone keeps safe and remembering that this is just a street, in one country, one world … our world. Let’s respect it, appreciate each other and value the treasure at the end of every rainbow.
Rosa Doran is an astronomist. She is a member of the Executive council of NUCLIO, the Núcleo Interactivo de Astronomia based in Portugal.