The field of astronomy has become increasingly accessible in recent years, thanks to the growth of online astronomical communities, citizen astronomers, and open-access databases. This growth has paralleled the creation of next-generation telescopes, instruments, and data-sharing methods allowing greater collaboration between observatories and the general public.
Unfortunately, despite these positive developments, there are still millions of people around the world who do not have access to astronomy and would like to. This problem mirrors disparities that exist worldwide, where many communities experience lower education, health, and economic outcomes. These exist not only between nations but between urban and rural communities, where a lack of infrastructure can translate into a lack of access.
To address this disparity, a growing number of organizations are looking to bring STEM education to traditionally underserved communities. This includes the Asif Astronomy Club, which has engaged with students in remote communities in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains since 2020.
Through its efforts, the club and its leader (El-Mehdi Essaidi) are spreading the culture of astronomy and its central message: “Space is for everyone.” They are also helping to inspire the next generation of scientists and change-makers to reach for the stars (literally and figuratively).
The Asif Astronomy Club was founded by El-Mehdi Essaidi, a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Health Sciences Casablanca-Settat and a research intern at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Since 2020, the Club and its founder have provided workshops to school districts in remote regions across southern Morocco.
The club began in 2020 as part of “Telescopes for All,” a campaign mounted by the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO). This campaign was one of several legacy actions arising from the IAU 100th Anniversary celebrations and is overseen by the Moroccan National Outreach Committee (NOC), which represents Morocco to the IAU.
This program aims to foster an interest in science among children, parents, and educators and “promote equal opportunities for pursuing a career in astronomy.” As one of the 17 communities selected, the Asif n Ait Bounouh Association for Culture and Awareness (AABACA) received a professionally-made telescope from the science instrument company Bresser.
The club is centered in Tafraoute, a small town in the Tiznit municipality nestled in the Anti-Atlas (or Little Atlas) Mountains in southern Morocco. For the past three years, Essaidi and his associates have been hosting workshops with students, educators, and parents in schools across the region.
Each Asif Astronomy Club workshop is divided into two parts, with a theory and then a practice segment. The theory segment consists of a presentation on the Solar System, its planets, and Earth’s place within it. This segment familiarizes students with the nature of each celestial body, its most important characteristics, and what we’ve come to learn about them through astronomical studies.
The students then perform activities such as listing the planets in order and making group presentations about them. This is followed by a Q&A session where each group will test their knowledge about the planet they’ve selected.
The practice segment consists of the students using binoculars and the telescope donated by the IAU in the schoolyard. This gives students a chance to experience “backyard astronomy” using professional equipment and develop the ability to study objects in the night sky more closely. Two popular activities, as Essaidi shared, are identifying features on the lunar surface and on the Sun:
“To identify the lunar surface, you can observe the Moon through a telescope or binoculars. The lunar surface is characterized by craters, mountains, valleys, and maria (dark areas on the surface). Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that appear as dark spots or patches. They are cooler regions of the Sun’s surface and can be observed with a telescope that has a solar filter to protect your eyes from the sun’s intense light.”
The Asif Astronomy Club has performed five “ITRI WASIF” workshops to date, conducting astronomy education and outreach to approximately 400 students in communities all across the Atlas Mountains.
Their efforts have been augmented thanks to the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) Global Sky Partners program, a global effort to make astronomy more accessible to under-represented communities and the developing world. The program provides educational organizations with over 1,000 hours of observing time on the LCO’s global network of robotic telescopes.
As a partner with the LCO program, the Asif Astronomy Club has been providing students and astronomy clubs with the chance to view professional-grade astronomical images, something they would not be able to do normally because of a lack of computers or internet access in their communities.
Itri Wasif 5
In partnership with the Askin Association for Development and Cooperation and under the supervision of the AABACA, the Asif Astronomy Club recently launched a series of Astronomy workshops in the municipality of Ammelne in southwestern Morocco. The first, titled “Itri Wasif 5,” took place in the town of Tafraoute, in the municipality of Askin.
Children from all backgrounds were invited to participate and engage in a range of activities, including a presentation on the Solar System, hands-on activities using robotic telescopes, and a quiz game that tested their knowledge of the material covered.
The children were also given the opportunity to see images taken by the LCO’s robotic telescope network. For this portion of the workshop, Essaidi helped the students access the 0.4-meter telescopes at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia and the Teide Observatory in Tenerife, Canary Islands. As the workshop’s organizers commented on the Asif Astronomy Club Facebook page:
“[T]he “Itri Wasif 5” Astronomy workshop for kids in Ammelne was a highly successful event that provided children with a unique and engaging opportunity to learn about the solar system and robotic telescopes. The organizers’ efforts in designing and implementing this workshop are highly commendable, and we look forward to seeing more such events in the future.”
The road ahead
Looking to the future, Essaidi hopes to expand the Asif Astronomy Club’s education and outreach efforts by establishing international partnerships. He also hopes they will be able to further spread the culture of astronomy by providing the club with astronomical equipment and building a planetarium.
He further hopes to expand the Club’s efforts in the city of Tafraoute with a festival that will welcome all the children in the Tiznit region:
“This festival will be an amazing opportunity for children of all ages to explore and learn about astronomy in a fun and interactive environment. Our festival will feature a variety of educational activities and exhibits, including stargazing with telescopes, presentations by experienced astronomers, interactive displays, and more.
“We believe that this festival will be a wonderful way to inspire children’s curiosity and spark their interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Moreover, it will be an excellent opportunity for children to bond with their peers and make new friends.”
The field of astronomy has changed dramatically thanks to improvements in instruments, methods, and data-sharing. But what is especially impressive is the way the “information age” has allowed for greater accessibility and opportunities. Whereas astronomical studies and education were once confined to academic institutions and observatories, it has now reached a point where the general public can get involved.
In addition to partnerships between professional and citizen scientists, educational and STEM organizations can bring professional astronomy to underserved communities and places where access has traditionally been lacking. In so doing, these organizations are helping to inspire the next generation of astronomers, astrophysicists, engineers, researchers, and educators.
They are also helping to ensure that children who aspire to reach for the stars and contribute to our understanding of the cosmos have opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable. Lastly, they are helping to ensure that the scientific community benefits from greater diversity and incorporates more people with varying backgrounds and perspectives.
“Space is for everyone” is not just a slogan or a goal. It’s fast becoming a reality.
Further Reading: Asif Astronomy Club
One thought on “Sharing the gift of astronomy: The Asif Astronomy Club”
There’s a long history of astronomy and space exploration bringing people together. Space is for everyone. And once people get that, they start to see that Earth is for everyone, too.