Lessons in awe and wonder from Kenya’s Travelling Telescope

Susan Murabana builds dreams with a big telescope and delivers equal access to the stars. Her Travelling Telescope program has reached about 200,000 Kenyan schoolchildren. Episode 4 of the “People Making a Difference” podcast. 

The Travelling Telescope

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Courtesy The Travelling Telescope
Susan Murabana, co-founder of The Travelling Telescope company, points out objects on the night sky with a laser pen for students at the Kisaruni Girls School in Kenya.

After watching a solar eclipse together in 2013, Susan Murabana and her partner, Chu Owen, hatched a plan to share the night skies with Kenyan schoolchildren. 

They bought a big, 12-inch optical telescope and started an astronomy business: The Travelling Telescope. They’ve reached more than 200,000 kids. They charge Kenya’s wealthier private schools and safari lodges for astronomy lessons so that they can freely share the telescope and a portable planetarium with public-school children. 

As they peer at the objects in our solar system, they hope to awaken a deeper sense of what makes this planet so special.

“Yes, we want to get more astronomers. That would be good,” says Ms. Murabana. “But more than that, we want … the next generation of leaders and scientists – who will be in charge of our planet – to be more kind and make better decisions about our home.”

You might have seen the Monitor story about The Travelling Telescope on May 12, 2021. We wanted to check in with Susan Murabana, and take you a little deeper with an audio interview.

Episode transcript

[Music]

Susan Murabana: Yes, we want to get more astronomers. That would be good. But more than that, we want to get more informed people. And especially the next generation of leaders and scientists who will be in charge of our planet, to be more kind and make better decisions about our home.

Dave Scott: That’s Susan Murabana. She’s co-founder of the Travelling Telescope program in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Welcome to People Making a Difference, a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world. 

I’m Dave Scott.
Ms. Murabana’s company was started seven years ago when Susan and her partner, Chu Owen, bought a telescope and started carting it around Kenya. They’ve reached about 200,000 African school kids. Their mission is about giving equal access to the skies for all Kenyans – and [inspiring] the next generation of scientists. But their story is also a love story. And we’ll get to that in a few minutes.

The Travelling Telescope also comes with a traveling inflatable planetarium, a domed tent with a planetary show inside, which they bring to schools.

Welcome, Susan!

Susan Murabana: Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Dave Scott: I’m glad you’re here. So you’ve said that you’re not necessarily trying to create a new generation of African astronomers with your traveling telescope. What are you trying to do?

Susan Murabana: I think the main aim of our company is to try and get as many young people to look through the telescope with the aim of inspiring them into science and education. But also really to get people to start thinking of their space and their place in our planet and how we have this unique, nice home we live in and why it’s important for us to take care of it.

Yes, we want to get more astronomers. That would be good. But more than that, we want to get more informed people. And especially the next generation of leaders and scientists – who will be in charge of our planet – to be more kind and make better decisions about our home.

Dave Scott: Can you give us an example of what it’s like when you do connect with this “next generation of scientists”?

Susan Murabana: So we had gone to a school and an underserved school, a few kilometers out of Nairobi. It’s very dusty, a few classrooms [and] not a really well-built school. And as soon as we got there, all these kids ran in excitement because they wanted to have this new experience. So we got our planetarium out. It’s a portable planetarium, set it up. You have to use a blower to blow it all up, so it’s very noisy and attractive.

So we did our show there. Then early evening, we had the telescope out. And give the kids a chance to look through the telescope. Some of the kids who were there had carried their youngest siblings on their backs and [were] walking. One at a time, we had a long queue looking through the telescope and we were looking at the moon, I remember. And so when this boy came, he was probably about 15, he looked through and he looked at the moon and looked through the telescope again. And he was like, “I now believe in science, like I’ve experienced this and I’ll believe in it.”

He obviously probably had seen the moon many times, but just seeing it through the telescope was really powerful. We do get those reactions, but this one is just powerful for me. I keep remembering his expression and his excitement because of looking through the telescope.

Dave Scott: When you get those moments, these sort of aha moments when kids really connect with the science, and what you’re doing, how do you nurture that? I know you had a space camp this summer. Are there other things you can do to help nurture that?

Susan Murabana: We’ve not quite figured out that yet. I’ve not quite figured out how to keep that energy and everything going. We’ve gone to places so remote and received very good feedback, but that’s it. You’re [there] two, three hours and then you’re moving to the next thing. And I felt that I needed to do more than just give kids a chance to look through the telescope. What about the kids who are really interested in astronomy or just who feel they’ve now changed their mind. What happens to them? Just like you asked me, “what role can I play? How do I make this more than just the experience for the ones who are very keen?” Part of the reason we started the space camps was to obviously bring in kids who already really love space. So I feel that pressure to try and do more.

Dave Scott: Susan later tells me that the pandemic lockdowns have in fact helped create some infrastructure for that continuing connection in space education. During the lockdowns, the Travelling Telescope team could no longer visit schools. So they got some funding from the Airbus Foundation and set up online classes in astronomy, rocketry, and robotics – such as building a Mars rover.

Susan Murabana: The kids and the schools, even in remote areas, have access to the internet – have computers – and we’re able to connect to them. So these programs are ideal for kids who are already very keen, who want to explore more, do more science, and the various different things they can get into. So we are trying to keep that going.

Dave Scott: For older kids, Susan encourages them to study astronomy or engineering at the university. And Kenya has a small space agency now and Kenya’s location on the equator gives it a cost advantage for launches.

Susan Murabana: Sometimes we have a few students who we keep seeing over and over, and a few really want to get into astronomy. There’s an astronomy program in our local universities. So we try and connect them with astronomy graduates, who we happen – at the moment – to work with one. So just to show them that they can still work in Kenya. And then Kenya now has a kind of space agency, so the equivalent of NASA. 

So we’re very excited about that because previously when we’d go to schools, they’ll say, “Oh, we want to work for NASA.” And now we’re really trying to work closely with the [Kenya space] agency to set up clubs in schools, especially in places where we can’t reach so that the kids can nurture their interest in space exploration and space education.

Dave Scott: As a Kenyan woman, Susan knows she’s a role model. There aren’t very many women astronomers or scientists in her country.

Susan Murabana: And I know there are many kids who don’t have people they can look up to, to relate to easily. And so it’s important for us. And I feel the pressure that I need to reach out to girls and boys, or them have access to people that could be role models for them, whether they end up doing astronomy or what we do or any other different careers. It’s just so important for them to see.

Dave Scott: In many countries, including Kenya, research shows that girls in high school and college tend to pull back from the sciences, leaving fewer women working in the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and math). But Susan says she’s never felt that pressure because she had supportive parents.

Susan Murabana: I decided to go into astronomy. I quit a job to go into astronomy and my parents supported me. They didn’t understand why, but they supported me. That was such an important thing for me. My dad always has had that. When I was younger, he would read through my books, even if he didn’t understand, just because he wanted to know what I was doing. And I always valued that kind of support from him. And I hope I’ll do that. I now have children and I try to be as present as possible, and also try not to insist that they have to work, or be part of the Travelling Telescope. And support them if they want to go into science or arts or they want to do five different things at the same time. I think it’s our role as parents and leaders, in that sense, to support them.

Dave Scott: So I have an eight-year-old niece, who’s really good at math. What advice would you give to parents – or an uncle – of girls who show an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Susan Murabana: To your young niece, and any other Yankee who might listen to this: Go for what you love and do it and work hard and do it with all you can. And don’t listen to people who say, “No, you can’t do it” because they’ll be there.

If you believe in what you want to do, really go for it.

Dave Scott: And about that love story. In 2013, Susan was organizing a trip to northern Kenya to watch a solar eclipse. At the time she was already working with school children. And got a big donation of solar eclipse sunglasses to give out in Kenyan schools. And this guy in England, Chu Owen, contacted her and said he wanted to film children getting the sunglasses and join the trip to film the eclipse.

Susan Murabana: I had received more than 5,000 safe solar glasses through an organization called Astronomers Without Borders. And it’s through them that Chu got to get my contacts. So, of course it was like, “Yeah. Cool. Yeah, happy to have you join the trip.” So he came and we ended up doing the trip to Turkana and I don’t know how this happened, but we ended up really connecting.

Dave Scott: In fact, Susan and Chu have something most couples don’t have. Chu captured on film the first moment when he met Susan after arriving in Nairobi. It’s part of the documentary he made titled “Good Luck and Clear Skies, African Eclipse, 2013.

Chu Owen: We are on the road to meet Susan Murabana. I’ve just landed in Nairobi, feeling really tired. It’s been a long, long journey. Very excited about meeting Susan. And she is the head of marketing of the African Astronomical Society. And, we’re going to be following her as she goes to collect the boxes, which contain the solar safe glasses for distribution around the schools. 

Black T-shirt and blue jeans. OK, we’ll look out for you. That might well be Susan, just here. I just pull up the door. Hello. Are you, Susan? How are you doing? Nice to meet you.

Dave Scott: And on that 2013 trip as they watched the solar eclipse together at Lake Turkana. Chu kissed Susan for the first time. And just a few weeks later, the idea of the Travelling Telescope emerged serendipitously. A large telescope had been donated for Susan’s educational work and Chu wanted to team up with her and take it to visit schools all across Africa.

The more pragmatic Susan said, “uh, let’s start in Kenya.” A team – and a plan to share the stars with [more] school children – was born. The couple now have three children of their own.

Susan Murabana: Yeah, it just happened. It’s just weird. And sometimes it’s nice to remember that. I feel fortunate that I work with someone who understands, and we really get along and really understand what we want.

We have the same ideals and we are happy. We really enjoy what we do, and we’re both very passionate about it. So I’m lucky to have a partner like that.

We have different roles, I guess. He’s more of the technical person. And I’m more of the face of the company, but I don’t know how that’s happened. It just happened to be that very early on, in setting up the company, we realized that we had different strengths and we knew that our different strengths complemented each other.

Dave Scott: The company they formed, The Travelling Telescope, is a for-profit enterprise, but it has a business model that relies on raising enough money by charging Kenya’s wealthier, private schools and safari lodges for their astronomy services so that they can freely share their 12-inch optical telescope and the mobile planetarium with public schools.

But Susan and Chu say that whether someone comes from a wealthy family or not, peering up at the objects in our solar system produces the same awe and wonderment. It’s a recipe for universal delight.

Here’s this week’s challenge. Take a kid to a planetarium or out on a clear night to watch the moon through a telescope. And watch the child’s response. Then tell me how it went. Call me at (617) 450-2410 and leave me a voice message about what happened. That’s (617) 450-2410. 

You’ve been listening to People Making a Difference. A podcast about people, who are step-by-step, making a better world.

Copyright, The Christian Science Monitor, 2021.

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