Aspire to Astronomy
Connecting with regional communities
Aspire UWA works with partner schools in Western Australia to inspire and educate students about the benefits of higher education. The Aspire to Astronomy roadshow was a collaboration of education and teacher enrichment partners who are passionate about science and astronomy, and keen to share this enthusiasm with regional communities.
- The University of Western Australia (UWA)
>>School of Indigenous Studies (SIS)
>>SPICE, a secondary science teachers’ enrichment program
- The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia
- 16 Aspire UWA partner schools
- Scitech Discovery Centre.
The objective of Aspire to Astronomy was to engage regional students, their families, and communities in discussions about the importance of higher education, by highlighting the exciting opportunities available by studying science and astronomy. Attitudes of family and community have a significant impact on students’ aspirations for university and the roadshows help influence these attitudes.
Aspire to Astronomy partners shared additional aims to:
- engage the community with the richness of university life
- inform them of the opportunities and support available to regional students at university
- provide a unique professional development opportunity for teachers
- create an opportunity for scientific experts to reach a large number of students
- promote the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.
Aspire to Astronomy extended Aspire UWA’s core program delivered during visits to regional schools by bringing together complementary services to offer a rich multi-layered experience in schools and communities that seldom have access to such opportunities. Each partner brought unique skills to the mix, resulting in a range of activities that far exceeded the scope of Aspire’s usual in-class activities.
Younger students built scale models of the solar system, launched water rockets and observed the sun using special solar telescopes. Older students built a radio telescope and measured the temperature of the sun’s corona. UWA’s Travelling Scientist, a PhD candidate studying astronomy, spoke to students about what it’s like to become a scientist, while presentations about the SKA highlighted opportunities that will be available in regional WA – and had a lot of students deciding on the spot to study astronomy!
Science teachers received the latest curriculum-based professional development and resources through SPICE, including training in and access to a remote internet telescope at UWA that can be used by high schools. Schools with telescopes received training, while other schools were presented with new telescopes thanks to support from local industry.
Community ‘Observing on the Oval’ events were hosted by schools with local residents invited along for a sausage sizzle, presentations about radio astronomy and a guided tour of the night sky. Younger children created astro-art and launched water rockets, and community members were encouraged to bring along telescopes and binoculars. In some communities, local Elders shared Dreaming stories about the stars, providing guests with a deeper understanding and respect for local knowledge.
Three tours, 16 schools and 14 community events later, 2,200 students and 1,800 community members have participated in Aspire to Astronomy roadshows throughout regional Australia. The Aspire to Astronomy tours were extremely successful, with all stated objectives met and in cases exceeded. They delivered an inspirational experience that fostered positive attitudes towards science and education in regional communities. The positive relationships that developed as a result of the tours have led to all initiating further regional projects.
The partnership worked as all partners had complementary aims, activities and strengths to contribute. Many of the partners had collaborated on projects previously, so a level of trust and collegiality predated the Aspire to Astronomy project. Clear division of responsibilities were established, drawing on the strengths of each partner:
- school visits coordinated by partner schools and Aspire UWA
- ICRAR and Scitech provided astronomy and science-focused activities
- Aspire UWA introduced the concept of university to younger students and discussed pathways with secondary students
- SIS liaised closely with ‘Follow the Dream’ sites (an academic enrichment program supporting Indigenous students) and met with Indigenous students to inform them about the opportunities, university pathways and support available to them through SIS
- SPICE offered a unique professional development opportunity for regional science educators.
‘Observing on the Oval’ events were hosted by the partner schools, who took responsibility for promoting the events, and sourcing local support; ICRAR provided telescopes and guided the sky tours; Aspire UWA, Scitech and SPICE ran astronomy-themed activities; and SIS liaised with local Elders.
Although organisations had individual responsibilities, all staff involved supported other partners wherever possible. This cooperation strengthened the relationships between partners, and allowed the tours to be run with minimal staff from each organisation. During tours, debriefings were held daily, ensuring strong communication between partners. After each tour, a final meeting celebrated the achievements and identified areas of improvement for future tours.
The success of Aspire to Astronomy reflects the strength of the relationships between all partners.
The Aspire to Astronomy partnership has inspired further collaborations, both with current partners and new collaborators, including an astrophotography based program in Derby Senior High School in WA’s remote north-west in 2014; and a formal MOU between Scitech and Aspire UWA, where both organisations committed to collaborate in regional Western Australia each year. The collaboration has also raised interest in pursuing further research on understanding barriers for regional students. Partners are keen to explore in more depth what the triggers are in remote communities to spark interest in higher education and what the impact of remoteness has on choices made. Capitalising on opportunities that will arise through location of the SKA in regional WA is also worthy of further exploration.
“Some staff members and parents have described the ‘Morawa Meets the Stars’ evening as one of the most delightful evenings they have spent in Morawa, not just this year, but ever! As a family evening it was exceptional – surprising, entertaining, informative, exciting and inexpensive!” – deputy principal.
This case study is one of a series of 31 presented in our case study publication, Partnerships in Higher Education.