Sharing stars in Ecuador III: Vicundo, unveiling the border between the two hemispheres

by Raul Puebla

A flash back…one day in between our visits to Rafael Larrea and Bicentenario schools, we visited the commonly known Middle of the World Monument, where like many other tourists, we were happily putting one feet on the south, the other on the north side of a yellow line we imagined to be the Equator.

Some days after, we headed to Cayambe, a small city 30 kilometers from Quito located at the foothills of the volcano with the same name. Our contact, Cristobal Cobo, suggested to meet at the Solar Clock Quitsato at the Middle of the World. Yes, another Middle of the World… How was this possible? When we arrived, we found the biggest solar clock I’ve ever seen in my live with about 15 meters of radius, and a white line crossing the center and pointing towards east. That line was the actual Equator line! as Cristobal pointed to us. More details about this fact and other middle of the world myths, will be described in a following post by Manu.

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After a small talk on the localization/orientation and archaeoastronomy of the area, the team went to visit Vicundo (which means bromeliad, a flower original from South America), a community formed by the descendants of former workers from a huge estate that was divided after two land reforms introduced by the Ecuadorian government in 1964 and 1973. Several families here run together a natural tourism and organic agriculture project, their ages ranging from teenagers to the 91 year-old gramma Alegría (Joy), the matriarch of the community.

Moreover, Cristobal, Josué (a junior community leader) and other young people have been working on an archaeoastronomy research project for the past 10 years, trying to rescue the memory and knowledge of the pre-colombian civilizations living in the area of Vicundo thousand of years ago.

During the two days that we spent here, the people from the community participated very actively of the astronomy talks and the activities. They were also very interested about the software Stellarium, which they used to recognize constellations and planets and to learn about the apparent movement of the stars. At night, we all reunited around the big fire place to cook “tortillas”, tell stories and stargazing. They also showed us their farms where they grow organic products and raise llamas, the bamboo constructions they are building with a technique that Josué learned in China (including a small and very cute house of Astronomy), their fishing places, all those practices contributing to a sustainable community…

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On the last day, Cristobal and his family invited the community and the GalileoMobile team to visit the main house in the old estate, which is a rural hostel for tourists now. They offered us a very tasty lunch consisting on several traditional recipes with a special ingredient: Misky Huarmi, a low-fire boiled syrup from the Agave plant. Afterwards, we walked around the state exploring the different buildings and fields. The walls of the oldest house were made of adobe (sun-dried brick), quite thick in order to keep the cold outside. A lot of history was hanging from them: old portraits, paintings, books…

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I have the feeling that I had learned much more than I was able to convey in Vicundo. These wonderful people showed us a new world view coming from the close contact with the land and the ancestral way of life, far from our computers and urban labyrinths. We left Vicundo feeling touched and moved, with new friends and a lot of learnings!

Sharing stars in Ecuador II: the Bicentenario Experience

by Raul Puebla

After the activities at the Rafael Larrea School (see our previous post here) we didn’t take a rest! The following days the team headed to the south of the city, to meet our local contact Mónica at the Milenio Bicentenario School. This school is called that way because it was created in 2008, due to the 200th anniversary of the first independence revolution in Ecuador. Upon our arrival, Mónica introduced Nancy to us, another teacher from the school. They both together were leading the group of teachers involved in what they called the Galileo project. In fact, they are creating an astronomy club to motivate their students into liking astronomy, they are already 25 people! During our stay there we reached around 200 students, so we hope the club might increase.

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The second day at this school was also a very busy one. The work started with three simultaneous talks about astronomy given by Raul, Fernanda and Manu, where students asked many interesting questions! Afterwards, we built a scaled solar system with two groups of students, it was so much fun! It turn out to be very challenging to fit our model even within the big courtyard behind the classrooms. We located one student representing each planet at the corresponding (scaled) distance from the Sun. The whole field became small to include the eight planets! We chose a scale in which the distance from the Earth to Mars would be equivalent to 13 meters, and approximated the longitude of one meter as a big step. This meant that to the get the position of Mars in our model, we would have to walk 13 big steps leaving Earth (as well as Venus, Mercury and the Sun) behind. Subsequently, the whole group walked counting steps together from one planet to another, until completing the solar system. It was difficult not to loose track of the counting sometimes, given that, for instance, we needed 108 steps to arrive from Jupiter to Saturn! With this exercise we wanted to make sure that students would understand how huge dimensions are in our cosmic home.

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That afternoon, the team prepared for our second observation camping. Again, Monica, Nancy and the rest of the teachers did an impressive job organizing the tents for the students, setting the campfire and getting hot beverage and biscuits for all. Unfortunately, the weather forgot us again. Many clouds persisted in drift above our incautious eyes, giving us only a few small and fast windows to observe the lonely sky. We did have a great time though, telling stories about the most famous constellations, and, in exchange, the students narrated some local tales (quite scary, by the way)  while the light from the wood-fire shook on our faces.

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At the end, the students were able to give rapid looks to the moon’s craters and found Jupiter traveling solo in the dark. Only around 3 am the weather opened its curtains, but only a few brave students and teachers were there to discover the beauty of a completely open sky. Early in the morning, we started the return home, a bit tired but with many new memories, friends and so many things to think about!

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Sharing stars in Ecuador I: On the first days in Rafael Larrea School

by Raul Puebla

GalileoMobile – Constellation in Ecuador was a great and enriching experience. The work began almost a year ago with teachers from the Rafael Larrea School (U.E. Rafael Larrea) and Bicentenario School (Unidad Educativa Municipal del Milenio Bicentenario), who were eager to organize astronomy activities with students and teachers.

On mid February 2016 the Constellation team arrived in Quito, the second highest capital in South America. As commonly happens, the logistic got something crazy at the moment to welcome our visitors – Fernanda, Manu, Pilar and Sandra B. Nevertheless, the hosts (Sandra P. and myself) were happy to have the GalileoMobile team in our home. Officially the work started on 19/02 with our visit to the Rafael Larrea school. The opening talk was given for a group of around 160 students and 10 teachers. The students were so inquisitive that some of their questions were actual challenges for the GalileoMobile team, showing that the curiosity is the main fuel for learning for students and teachers as well.

The first observation camping was held in Cochasquí, a set of pre-inca ruins north east from Quito. The teachers did such an impressive work organizing the event, they prepared a guided tour around the ruins so the team could understand the archaeological value of the site. At nigh the sky didn’t help much, but the students and teachers learned a lot of things about the sky, constellations, planets and the sky movement.

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The next two days the GalileoMobile team was working at the school in the city center. The main activities we performed from our Handbook were: The Earth Orbit, The Solar System, The Expansion of the Universe, as well as a new one concerning Exoplanets. We also worked closely with teachers so they will reproduce the activities regularly after our visit. On the second day, due to an interesting request from the teachers themselves, we gave several scientific talks about some hot topics in astronomy: stellar evolution, black holes, solar system…

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At the end of the second day, the staff, teachers and students prepared an incredible surprise for us. They organized a little ceremony (with about 1500 students and 30 teachers) where the older students presented four huge designs with the shapes of the most popular constellations in the sky: Crux, Orion, Canis Major, and Ursa Major. Then, under our amazed eyes, they lighted them up like fireworks!! Every firework had the color of a particular star within the constellation, for example in Orion, the illumination effect for Betelgeuse was clearly red and Rigel blue. It was so cool! We had never seen something like that. During the ceremony, we also donated the material and telescope to the director and the teachers. The experience in the Rafael Larrea School was really unique. We are so thankful to Gonzalo Ortiz, his wife Mónica, Patricio, Carla and all the others teachers, students and staff for sharing those days with us!

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