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Charting Kenya's course for the future using the stars

By Jacqueline Mahugu | Published Sat, February 10th 2018 at 00:00, Updated February 9th 2018 at 23:15 GMT +3
Susan Murabana a Kenyan astronomer and co - founder of Traveling Telescope, teaches students how to make robots. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Maureen Wairimu could barely contain herself when we caught up with her after seeing the moon up-close.

And no, the Form Three students had not travelled to the orb. She was right here in Kenya, at her school, Musa Gitau Girls’ Secondary School in Kiambu County.

Her class had just had an experience of a lifetime - observing the super blue blood moon that comes to pass every 150 years.This is a total lunar eclipse, blue moon and super-moon happen at the same time.

“I have always wanted to see the moon up-close since I was a child and when I have finally seen it through the telescope it was bigger than what I had imagined,” said Wairimu.

Before that, she had just completed another adventure - being part of an Airbus programme where the students simulate a space mission by building miniature robots and rockets.

For the students, seeing miniature versions of actual rockets and space vehicles they had built and programmed with their own hands come to life was unbelievable.

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“When I finish school I would like to go to the moon!” she says.

This happened courtesy of Susan Murabana, a Kenyan astronomer who is on a mission to demystify science and astronomy to learners.

Effects of space

Brought up in Lang’ata, Nairobi, she loved science as a child, but as an adult, she realised there were many areas she could pursue which she was not exposed to in school. So she has set out to change that.

Ms Murabana enrolled for Masters in Astronomy and got involved in Science Outreach through an organisation ,Global Hands-on Universe.

She was invited to the US as a short-term scholar at the University of California Berkeley on scholarship, which has produced a number of Nobel Prize winners in Physics.

Armed with a telescope, a mobile planetarium and a burning passion, she travels around schools, letting children look through the telescope, sit inside the planetarium, marvel at the universe and discover the joys of science. They become enamored with a world they live in but had never quite considered.

Her work has taken her to learning sky lore from the Maasai in the villages and other places in Africa, to getting interviews on BBC, CNN and German TV and meeting world renown astronauts.

She was invited to the United Nations Expert Meeting on Space for Women last year where she met astronauts like Dr Mae Jemison, who was the first African American woman to go to space, Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space while doing an experiment in the International Space Station on the effects of space on the human body, and Mr Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian astronaut.

“We had the executive director of UNEP get into the planetarium, looking through the telescope and getting wowed, and on the other hand we have an old Maasai man looking through it and the children,” she says.

During her undergraduate studies she joined a group of students to teach science across Africa. “When I was about to finish my undergraduate degree in Economics at Catholic University, I joined a group of graduate students from US and UK who were travelling across Africa to teach Science,” she says.

“They were using very basic materials like an orange to demonstrate the size of the sun compared to the earth, and trying to give children a sense of scale. I was fascinated by it because the children really understood it and I was reminded of my school science years and I wished I had had something like that.”

She decided then to provide exactly that to Kenyan school children. During her mission, she met her husband, Daniel-Chu Owen, and together they founded the Travelling Telescope.

“The idea is to travel around with our materials, which is a telescope, a mobile planetarium and other interesting science kits. I travel around schools and teach them science, then leave hoping that we have left an impact, that the children will look at science in a different way.”

She has reached about 40,000 children now. Typically, she and her husband teach science in a fun and exciting way.

As a full-time job for Murabana, it is an expensive venture.

“We have a system where we charge certain schools like International Schools, but we do it for free in public schools, or sometimes get organisations or grants that would support our trips to the public schools, like Airbus did this time,” she says.

She plans to build a science centre which will have a big observatory, a permanent telescope, a permanent planetarium and science display area where people can try different experiments.

Meanwhile, she continues her work with the Travelling Telescope.

“In a school we went to, one of the children wanted to be an engineer. When he saw this video of the International Space Station, he decided he will be a space engineer,” says Murabana.

“Moments like those make me very happy. It is just about exposing children to more than they would usually think about and showing them that they can do all those things too.”

At the end of the day, the learners express how much their eyes have been opened.

When they part ways, she packs up her bags leaving the students basking in the new light of a universe that they now know is theirs to explore.


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