Expert Voices

The Need for Astronomy: Teaching Science in Tanzania (Op-Ed)

Mponda Malozo, an amateur astronomer, works with the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture as an environmental and agriculture expert, is coordinator for Universe Awareness-Tanzania, and is the Tanzania coordinator of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB), and the Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP) and Star Peace in Tanzania. Chuck and Susan Ruehle are trained teachers, retired Lutheran pastors, and the founders of AWB's Telescopes to Tanzania. The authors are collaborating with a Tanzanian non-governmental organization in the development of a Center for Science Education and Observatory. The authors contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Four years ago, Chuck and Susan Ruehle went on a mission trip to Tanzania to visit schools, hospitals, orphanages, clinics and churches. Everyone in the eight-member delegation talked about what they were going to take for the schools they were going to visit, and being visual astronomers in Racine, Wisc., the Ruehles took three small telescopes . They shared a few simple supplies for teaching science and for observing the night sky with schools and communities — and people were very interested and committed to using those tools.

Through Astronomers without Borders, the Ruehles were introduced to Mponda Malozo, and together they planned a two-week teacher training event using astronomy as a vehicle for teaching science, math and geography. In a teacher training session, one teacher stated: "It sounds like you are saying that the sun is a star." It was that single comment followed by myriad more that committed the Ruehles to working with teachers to build a better understanding of the universe.

From that two week experience, the vision for the Center for Science Education and Observatory for northeast Tanzania was born.

Now, that center is poised to become a reality. The center demonstrates how classroom-taught theories can be transformed into student-motivated explorations of science questions. Astronomy will become the center's tool to explain the underlying principles of science, math and engineering disciplines.

In June 2014, a specially selected group of teachers, scientists and education officers will gather near Arusha, Northern Tanzania, to develop an astro-science model for the nation and as a model to be shared throughout Africa. As for the facility itself, the center has been using a donated office facility with space for workshops and secure storage for science materials — but teachers and students are waiting for the center's centerpiece, a 12-inch Cave Cassegrain telescope being refurbished and readied for transport from the United States.

Below are our personal thoughts about the effort, and if you wish to support the project, you can learn more on our donation site.

Mponda Malozo

Living in a land where the majority of people are trying to attain the basic needs of life, changing the archaic lecture-based education system is perceived as prestigious and too expensive.

Looking at the history of Tanzania, very few people have managed to surface and give back to society. Even teachers, who are paid very small salaries, must devote precious preparation and learning time to bringing additional resources for their families' incomes.

Living in this land often brings only thoughts for survival and sustenance for daily needs, despite the diverse culture and naturally inquiring minds of the people. The majority of students and teachers focus on passing final national exams at any cost. The true value of education, as a way to understand the world, is lost in the search fortest results and a job that pays.

Science dramatically loses value in this land, due to insignificant incentives given to those with the passion and love for it. It is hard to find a good, paying job if you take science subjects. The country is investing less and less in creating jobs for a new generation of scientists. The only hope for scientists coming from this land is to have international support and recognition.

I was once told "A scientist is the child of the world," and this statement changed my thinking for I realized I have a child-like sense of inquiry, and desire to learn about the greater world. I began to understand that I was more than a Tanzanian. I belonged to the world, to humanity, and to the planet Earth. I wonder about those who are like me, and have not had a chance to realize a bigger potential.

The sky connects us, and helps us see beyond our geographical boundaries. It gives each one of us an opportunity to experience our natural curiosity and question our being and existence. It is through this we can help create a true desire for a better world. The Centre for Science is a place where individuals can look at the night sky and begin to see the connections between math, geography, physics, biology, chemistry and all life.

Changing the way science subjects are taught is a challenge in Tanzania. While there is a national syllabus for subject matters, there is very little attention paid to learning styles or abilities. The Centre will help teachers learn to teach with a hands-on methodology which encourages student participation and student questions and ideas. We help teachers who desire to learn how to transfer what's written in a text book into practical experiments and experiences.

Chuck and Sue Ruehle

Soon after we returned to the United States after that first mission trip, we received requests to come back — to spend time to teach and share how to use the materials and do more with them. Because we both were teachers before becoming pastors, we were eager to accept the invitation.

During the next four trips, we continued to teach basic astronomy and began to work with our Tanzanian partners to use the telescopes and other materials we brought. We spent a month at a time, living, teaching, sharing and building relationships in Tanzania. We held workshops for teachers. We visited the schools at which the teachers taught — some in remote villages and some in more developed areas. We saw students eagerly respond. They enjoyed the hands-on way of learning which experienced often for the first time. They were out of their seats, eager to use the telescopes , seeing an exciting vision of the night sky, and experiencing how that vision will help them do better in science, math and geography.

Mponda Malozo took on the daily efforts, and as the work grew, we listened to the people we were helping, and their voices became clearer and more direct. They said, "We need for you to do something bigger, we don't want you to just come and teach once a year, we want a program, something that is ongoing. We want our students and our teachers to learn more about science and we need your help."

In order for us to develop something that would be sustained beyond ourselves — and our ability to be in Tanzania once or twice a year — we began to develop relationships with teachers; with schools and their head-masters; with people in non-profits, religious groups and community groups; and with leaders in government so that we could put together a vision and a curriculum that helps students learn and grow.

Now, it is much bigger than us. It isn't just our vision anymore. We are now part of the goals and visions of the people in Tanzania. They are asking us to help them with their program and their vision.

There is already a group of teachers, educators, government officials, community members, scientists and others who have started to look at the national curriculum of Tanzania, to examine the syllabus and to discern how to use practical hands-on ideas, experiments and exercises to help students experience basic science knowledge. That's what the Center for Science is all about.

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This work has already produced many outcomes, including providing teacher training, change in some classroom teaching styles; providing hands-on resources like telescopes and other science equipment for community leaders and schools; and leading hands on classroom exercises and experiments with more than 54 teachers and thousands of students.

Excitement is building — in the next months, a Tanzanian-based non-governmental organization is being finalized for the Centre for Science and Observatory. The Cave-Cassegrain telescope is being refurbished and readied for shipping for the Centre.  Connections continue to be developed with the international science community including with CERN, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill., the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago, the Global Hands on Universe (GHOU), the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), the Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP) and many individual professors and scientists who will assist the Centre in its curriculum and teaching resources. In Tanzania, links are being made with local universities and scientists, Ministries of Education and Science and Technology for furthering the out-reach capacity of the centre.

And the growth will continue — an effort has begun to create a partnership with astronomers around the world to offer safaris that will include not only visits to national parks, but also equatorial observing opportunities in some extremely dark-sky venues.

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Chuck Ruehle