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Stargazing for a New Generation of Chatham Island Scientists

Stargazing and bullets of light to excite a new generation of Chatham Island scientists

800 kilometres east of the South Island with only 600 residents, the Chatham Islands’ three schools only go up to year 8 and have very little access to scientific equipment, demonstrations and new science insights. 60% of the population are Māori, a demographic significantly underrepresented in science and technology careers. A group of high powered scientists and science communicators have arrived to spark the children’s interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and encourage more to pursue science when they go to secondary school on the mainland.

Stargazing, blowing stuff up and exploring the bizarre world of quantum physics are some of the activities planned. Topics like quantum physics, which studies mysterious sub-atomic properties, can be difficult to grasp - but during the week long expedition, the team are taking the Islanders on an experimental and interactive learning journey. Students are discovering for example how at the quantum scale, light is made of tiny bullets of energy and particles can be in two places at once! The group are exploring these bizarre properties along with astronomy and other fascinating science concepts through demonstrations and activities at schools, hotel and marae.

The project is supported by the Government's "Unlocking Curious Minds” fund which aims to engage those with limited opportunities in STEM subjects. It was organised by the Otago Museum and the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies.

The directors of both organisations are on the expedition.

Dr Ian Griffin, physicist, astronomer and Museum Director will be hosting several stargazing evenings.

“If the skies are clear we’ll get a fantastic view of the centre of the milky way rising over the islands and brilliant views of Jupiter an Saturn,” Ian says. “Later in the week we’ve got the Delta Aquarid meteor shower - there might be twenty or thirty meteors every hour and in the clear dark transparent skies here, that should be a smashing show!”

On Monday night Professor David Hutchinson, quantum theorist and Director of the Dodd-Walls Centre hosted a conversation at the local pub about quantum physics and its applications.

“It was very very exciting,” said local mother of three Sarah Goomes, “We don’t get anything like this over here. We don’t even have the internet. There are people here who are just desperate for this kind of knowledge. I help out at the school and there’s just not enough science - there’s not enough love of it and there’s not enough of the adventure and passion in it. And you look at people like this who have taken this time to come and talk to us an think - that’s big. That’s really big for these children. And it’s a big treat for me!”

The Dodd-Walls Centre is at the global forefront of photonic and quantum technology research - the study of light and quantum phenomena. Quantum Technology utilises the bizarre quantum rules to make incredible new devices. It is a global wave of technology development with billions being invested worldwide. New Zealand is at the forefront of research with Dodd-Walls Centre researchers leading developments in quantum computers, which could revolutionise IT, medicine and communications.

As Professor David Hutchinson says:

“New Zealand has a big opportunity to develop industry in quantum technology which could transform our economy. I think it’s important young kiwis get exposed to this fascinating field at an early age when they are imagining their future.”

Some highlights of the programme include making rockets, exploding balloons of hydrogen gas and simulating space with marshmallows, as Nathalie Wierdak, one of the organisers from Otago Museum, explains:

“On Wednesday we are going to build and launch water rockets to learn about Newton’s law. For our Sensational Science Show we are going to do some fab demos using hydrogen and helium talking about what stars are made of and send some marshmallows in a vacuum to simulate space.

“In case the weather is not in our favour… we have Star Lab our portable Planetarium, so come rain or snow we can learn about the night sky and constellations in the southern hemisphere.”

Another highlight will be “Amadeo Enriquez Ballestero’s Greatest Science Show Ever in the History of the Chathams/World” a mind-boggling science show presented by Amadeo Enriquez Ballestero, the Otago Museum’s Science Presenter Coordinator.

The group will leave the community with resources and connections to stay engaged and excited by science after the trip. They will gift a telescope to the island and provide training on how to use it so the community can continue to explore and stargaze. They are also leaving a seismometer and other scientific equipment so the schools and families can continue to experiment with their new found scientific curiosity beyond the visit.

“To actually get people here on the Chathams to come and work with us is really difficult and it takes a lot of building of relationships and time to get something happening,” says Barbara Moore, principal of Te One School. “When we do get scientists here it tends to be people working with the birds to look at the landforms here - so to have people come who are looking at chemistry and physics and all those other fun areas of science - it’s really excited the kids.”

The aim is to develop a long-term relationship with the Chatham Islands community and support their scientific engagement, as Professor David Hutchinson, the Director of the Dodd-Walls Centre, says:

"This is not just a visit. It's about building a relationship. We’re inviting one teacher to become the “Chatham Islands science champion”. They will be funded to come to Otago for further upskilling and science experience. Along with a telescope for stargazing, we have also brought DIY science kits, with experiments for children to do at home. The whole idea is to get them excited and spark their curiosity so they feel inspired to keep asking questions and doing their own experiments. We want to be a part of the science future of the Chatham Islands. That legacy is more important than the visit”

As museum science engagement director Dr Craig Grant who has taken the lead in organising the trip says:

“We’re hoping the wider Chathams community might see how new technologies can help offset some of the challenges of their remoteness, and enable them to take advantage of their unique location, such as linking the science of astronomy with night sky watching and astrophotography tourism.”

Chatham Islander Abby Biltcliff has seen the potential for her children in a science future:

“In the Chathams most of the industries are based around science,” she says “A lot of the technology that’s going to be used in agriculture, fishing and farming could benefit from budding scientists in the future. I’m really keen for my girls to be involved with science, so if I can learn something to spark their interest I’ll take that opportunity.”

More info:

Trip Dates: Mon 24th - Thurs 27th July - We arrive Monday afternoon and leave Fri morn.


Dodd Walls Centre:
Otago Museum:
Unlocking Curious Minds Fund:

We have lots of great photos and some video and audio content. There is no cellphone service on the island, but if you email we can give you a call on a landline.


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