On 7 December, a bus loaded with astrophysicists, scientists, artists and innovators arrived in Fiche, Ethiopia. As children from neighbouring schools arrived, volunteers for Astrobus Ethiopia set up displays and workshops on science and art, designed to draw them to the world of space science and technology and encourage young citizens to make their own contribution to those fields.
Astrobus Ethiopia covers eight different cities across Ethiopia. At each stop on tour, a team of mostly Ethiopian scientists, artists and innovators engage with learners from local schools and run a series of workshops. The tour ends on 17 December, in Addis Ababa, to coincide with the launch of Ethiopia’s first satellite. The craft, named ETRS-1, is an earth-observing satellite which will provide valuable meteorological data and will affirm Ethiopia’s place as a space-faring nation.
According to the project leader, Dr Yababel Tadesse, “The main mission of the Astrobus project is to cultivate a culture of critical thinking and contribute significantly in resizing a society competent in a modern world.”
Tadesse, a cosmologist and data scientist, who first came up with the idea in 2015, spent two years developing the project with astrophysicist, Nebiha Shafi; Architect Carla von Münchow, and other collaborators from Ethiopia and abroad. The project is in partnership with the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), which has provided significant support.
The ESSS is a non-profit organisation established in 2004 with a vision to make Ethiopia an extensive user and developer of space science and technology. The organisation has over ten thousand members, including professionals in the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, space science and related technologies.
The first Astrobus Ethiopia hit the road in October 2017. They visited 8 towns over the course of ten days, reaching about ten thousand students from 40 schools. The project was popular with students, who gave enthusiastic feedback. Spin-off projects have been launched in selected schools in Addis Ababa, and there are also plans to launch more Astrobus shows in Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa.
Projects like this are important in the highly connected world of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the communications technology that we’ve all come to rely on allows for the rapid spread of misinformation. It is thus vital for the future of any country that it’s citizens are trained in clear, critical thinking, along with the more concrete technical skills that are usually promoted. Tadesse hopes that the work done by Astrobus Ethiopia will foster a strong spirit of innovation. Any country that wants to stake its claim in the future economy needs its people to have the ability to take scientific knowledge, spot potential applications for it, then invent new technologies to implement those applications.
Astrobus Ethiopia introduces learners and students to scientists, artists and innovators. They are given time to engage with them, before beginning a series of workshops where they can look through telescopes, create artworks celebrating science, and build their own projects. The hope is to inspire the next generation to acquire the skills and habits needed to implement Ethiopia’s technological future.
The 2017 workshops were divided amongst various subjects, and the current show follows a similar format. The previous Science and Astronomy workshop, led by astronomers and astrophysicists, included talks and discussions on astronomy and practical observation. The Technology and Innovation workshops, led by an architect, an engineer and a data scientist, were a series of practical exercises involving robotic cars, smartphone sensors and robotic programming using the Scratch graphical programming language. The Art and Design activities, led by artists, an architect and a fashion designer, included working with a 3D printer, and the design and colouring of spacesuits. Nighttime sessions were all about practical observations of the universe and showed students how to find objects in the night sky with computer software, and then actually see them through one of the project’s many telescopes.
Allen Versfeld is a science writer, an amateur astronomer and a consulting cloud technologist. He has been writing on space and astronomy since 2009, and is the host and producer of the Urban Astronomer Podcast. Allen lives in a major South African city, where he likes to complain about the steady increase in light pollution.