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Bridging Sri Lanka and The Netherlands through astronomy

'Find your way from the stars’, an online workshop on Nautical Astronomy, was one of the winners of The Netherlands Online Cultural Challenge 2020. The workshop was conducted in collaboration with the IAU Office for Astronomy Outreach, Leiden University’s Astronomy & Society Group, and the Department of Physics at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka. 

The Sun and the stars were the main guides for Polynesian navigators to find their way during long voyages across the oceans. The growth of industry and trade in the 15th century, however, called for more reliable methods for ocean exploration. Navigation became scientific with the advent of precision instruments that used mathematical astronomy for determining the latitude and longitude of celestial objects allowing sailors to accurately determine their course. Christiaan Huygens, the renowned Dutch astronomer, was the first to invent a marine chronometer in 1673.

Engaging school students with navigation

The Sextant, invented in the 18th century, later became the most accurate instrument for celestial navigation. It is used in big ships even today. In addition to this, the Apollo 8 astronauts used a modern version of the sextant to navigate to the Moon. The idea of engaging school students with the advancement of navigational techniques — combined with a simple activity of building a sextant — brought together a team of enthusiastic researchers from the Netherlands and Sri Lanka to collaborate on an educational project.

One of Sri Lanka's largest harbours

‘Find your way from stars’ is an online education project to engage secondary school students with Nautical Astronomy in the Galle district, Sri Lanka. The historical and cultural importance of the city inspired the project. Galle, home to the second-largest natural harbour in Sri Lanka, was once the destination for many 16th century European sailors who sailed to the country, finding their way through celestial navigation. 

The 3D printed sextant

3D printed sextant

The project was led by Dhanushka Subath Amaradasa, research assistant at the Department of Physics of the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, under the supervision of Thilina Heenatigala, science communicator at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI), Japan and supported by Leiden Observatory's Astronomy & Society Group.

The project took place in February 2021 and gave room for students to self-assemble a 3D printed sextant and follow online sessions with experts. The objective was to introduce young people to how sailors read stars for navigation both in the past and present.

Curiosity and a sense of humanity

While students had to restrain their usual activities due to the challenges of COVID-19, this Nautical Astronomy online workshop panned out to be an ideal edutainment activity, promoting curiosity and instilling a sense of humanity under the same sky.

‘It is truly inspiring and rewarding as an organiser to be able to address the educational needs of the community and help them see the beauty of the universe,’ says Amaradasa. ‘This project has paved the path to explore bigger efforts in the future to bring astronomy to students with vision impairment, a need that is otherwise not met with many resources in Sri Lanka,’ adds Heenatigala.

To encourage equity, diversity and inclusion among students from Sinhala, Tamil and English medium schools in the Galle district were invited — half of the participants were girls. Students with special needs were also invited to participate, giving them equal opportunity while catering to their needs. A total of twenty-eight (28) young participants registered, along with five others from Rohona, a differently-abled school.

Online workshop on Nautical Astronomy with Ms. Anouk Baron, the Deputy ambassador at The Netherlands embassy in Sri Lanka

Self-assembling the sextant

The online sessions were held during the 4and 11 February 2021, gathering students between 12 and 15 years old. In the first session, participants assembled a 3D printed sextant with the aid of a demonstration. All pieces and instruments needed for assembling the sextant were enclosed in a box, shipped to the participants in advance. 

A video recording of the online session was made available to the five participants from the Rohona school, where the principal volunteered to translate the instructions in sign language. 

Students from Rohona watching the recorded video of the online session

Promoting gender equity and cultural diversity

Students and parents enjoyed the workshop and engaged with basic concepts of celestial navigation. With 53.6% of female participation, inclusion of students with special needs and representing those from Sinhala, Tamil and English medium schools, ‘Find your way from stars’ became a catalyst in promoting gender equity, as well as cultural diversity, across Sri Lanka. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science set the stage for the project’s final session.

‘Find your way from stars’ was one among the three projects funded by The Netherlands Embassy of Sri Lanka. According to the Embassy, the project highlights Sri Lanka’s culture to the world and fosters the relationship between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka. 

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