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Journey to the heart of the sun

   

The atmosphere was electric, on 8 and 9 November 2000, at the Space Expo in Noordwijk (NL). Five teams of young people from five countries - France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands - came together to present a joint exhibition. The common theme was the sun. Helped by their teachers and experienced events organisers from science museums, they worked for months on presenting a particular aspect of our star, about which many of them previously knew very little. Such an event gave us all the chance to discover some of its secrets.

     
   

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The stars have a colour'. For the youngest EPOS entrants (aged 12-14), from Toulouse, the challenge was to analyse the sun as a star, and to present the results of their investigations in English.

I see this operation as having certain similarities with European space research. Elements are manufactured at various locations - such as the Airbus or Ariane rocket - and then brought together, clipped into place like a Lego set, and it all works. A wonderful example of European cooperation,' believes Walter Staveloz, director of Ecsite (European Collaborative for Science, Industry and Technology Exhibitions) and the EPOS (European Project on the Sun) coordinator.

Choosing the teams
It all started with the national selections, organised by a science centre or museum. In each country the project promoters recruited 'their young people' in schools and science clubs. 'When we spoke of EPOS at the schools we work with, the response was immediately enthusiastic because this is very different from the usual educational project,' explains Bérangère Gueguen, events organiser with Pastel, the French astronomy association. In Toulouse, a group of youngsters aged between 12 and 14 from two different classes came to the Cité de l'Espace to work on the subject of 'The sun as a star'. 'This was an opportunity to present notions such as the colour, life cycle and mass of stars in a very concrete manner,' comments Arnaud Carcon, coordinator of the Cité project. 'As the youngest in the group had no preconceived notion of astronomy at all, we had to focus on making sure the message we wanted to communicate was one that could be understood.'

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The aim of the ESA's Cluster mission is to study, with unrivalled precision, the interaction between the charged particles emitted by solar winds and the earth's magnetosphere.

Imagining, searching, creating
'A lot of searching was involved: Internet surfing for documentation, choosing the photos, etc. It is also a competition, of course, and now we have all come together here, we are curious to see what the others have done. Which is not bad either,' admits Esther, a Dutch participant. 'All the teams made good use of the assistance offered by the European Space Agency (ESA) in contacting researchers and finding scientific or more general information, technical pictures and unique photos of our star,' notes Hugo Marée, communication officer for ESA's scientific programmes. ESA also participated directly in the exhibition, presenting the results of its scientific missions on the sun, in particular the Ulysses, SOHO and Cluster projects.

In Italy, seven boys and girls aged between 16 and 18 from four classes at the same school in Naples looked at 'how the sun works'. The Italian school system supports initiatives of this kind by granting 'educational credits' for the study of certain disciplines such as astronomy. 'The young people were very keen. It was they who decided what information to present, after studying in class the somewhat taxing scientific content of the subject. They produced a very accomplished project and our job was mainly to check the educational aspects of their proposals with the exhibition visitors in mind,' says Alessandra Zanazzi, project coordinator for the Città della Scienza - Fondazione IDIS in Naples.

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The sun's cycles, sunspots, interference between this star and our planet... just some of the elements analysed by the Dutch team which used original and visually striking documents to present information about solar activity.

Museum involvement
In Germany, the team was coordinated by the Deutsches Museum in Munich, which possesses a wealth of documentation, photographs and observational data. 'We were right in the area which experienced a total eclipse of the sun in 1999,' explains the museum's scientific officer, Thomas Kraupe. 'That means we were very well placed to tackle the subject of observing the sun.' The German group consisted entirely of amateur astronomers, all aged between 16 and 18 and members of the same club. 'We saw the eclipse, and it is really something you will never forget,' says Markus, a team member. 'We worked for EPOS at the weekend, during the holidays, and after school. We had to really investigate the subject in depth, make lots of observations and closely study all the eclipses. We wrote all the texts ourselves, and chose the photos and films placed in the interactive module.'

It was not just the motivation of these young people that struck Thomas Kraupe, but also their computing skills and ability to cope on their own. 'Our intervention was limited because we wanted it to be their project. In fact, in future I believe it would be advisable to concern young people at an earlier stage in the process, getting them involved in developing the concept behind such initiatives.'

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All members of the same astronomy club, for the German team this was not the first contact with the sun. Apart from closely watching the 1999 eclipse, they are also regular visitors to Munich's Deutsches Museum.

From mythology to remote sensing
In Belgium, another museum - the Musée des Sciences et des Technologies in Parentville - coordinated the project on the theme 'The sun, myths and realities'. In this case pupils from a school in Jodoigne decided to produce a CD-Rom of their work. For the Noordwijk presentation, they dressed up in brightly coloured clothes with some original hairstyles to embody the various civilisations in whose myths or religions the sun plays an important role. 'We had a threefold aim,' explains Laurent Thomas, the scientific coordinator. 'We wanted to give these young people the opportunity to get their first taste of research, to think about how to present a scientific project to a jury, and to use new information technologies.'

'Producing a CD-Rom was really interesting. You had to know all about the technical and computing side of it, which wasn't always easy, and then there was the more artistic side of integrating all the cartoons,' explains Gregory, a pupil. 'Those better at science looked for the information on the Internet and prepared the presentation, while the more artistic did the costumes. That way we complemented each other.'

'For a relatively small organisation such as the Space Expo Foundation, the EPOS project was a big adventure,' explains Wouter Van der Kwaak, the Dutch scientific coordinator. 'We had been running an educational project on remote sensing for three years, and we drew on this experience to tackle the subject of solar activity. It was through this channel that the participants, aged between 16 and 18, were chosen.'

'We met with scientists from ESA and Leiden University, which is not far away, attended conferences about sun, and visited a telescope,' explains a team member. 'And at school we manufactured the prototypes illustrating the effects of solar activity on the earth.'

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Sun worship throughout civilisation, the fears and wonder it has instilled in time and space. 'Humans and the sun', presented by a group of young Belgians, unrecognisable on this occasion. Also available on CD-Rom.

A trip to the space camp
After making final adjustments to the computers, repairing the interactive elements and sorting out any last-minute hitches, the hour of the competition arrived. All the modules were combined in a joint structure presented at the Space Expo in Noordwijk (see box) and each team in turn presented its contribution to the jury which was charged with the difficult task of judging the entries. Jury members included representatives of European science and technology museums, ESA officials, a scientific journalist and two real astronauts, Frank De Winne and André Kuipers. Understanding of the subject, scientific precision, museological quality, the degree of involvement on the part of the young people... all these elements and more were carefully considered by the jury and pertinent questions asked. 'One of the key elements in the EPOS initiative was the relationship between the coordinating museums and the young people. These were clearly excellent. We saw this during each team's presentation. The collaboration was evident,' believes Hugo Marée. 'The success of the enterprise was based on the professionalism of the participants. The museums did an excellent job and all the elements just slotted into place,' adds Wouter Van der Kwaak.

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'How does the sun work?' presented by the Italian team. Feeling the stress before the verdict that pronounced them winners. Their prize is an introductory weekend to science at the Redu Space Camp in Belgium.

The youngest participants, aged 12, presented their work in English with the attractively lilting accent of their native Toulouse. Bilingualism was the rule, and all the posters, CD-Roms and other supporting material were presented in the participants' national language together with an accompanying English version. The Belgian entry - the only one to have approached the sun from the perspective of the human sciences - was congratulated for its originality. The Dutch contribution was judged very interesting educationally, as it focused on varied presentations to reach a wide audience. The Germans produced a very clear synthesis based on the juxtaposition of images which were as eye-catching as they were instructive - in particular, the speeded up images of the solar eclipse. And the Italians were pronounced the winners! 'We gave it all we had right from the start. Before making the modules we repeated all the experiments at the Città dellà Scienza,' explains Luca, a team member. 'The idea of a competition is very stimulating, and I enjoyed presenting and explaining our work to the jury,' adds Maurizio. The prize? A weekend at the Redu Space Camp in Belgium. Where better to whet the appetite of the astronauts of the future?

 

Astral quintet

The exhibition entitled Fly me to the Sun is based on five themes and presented by five teams. The Germans focused on observing the sun, the Belgians on myths surrounding the sun, the French on the sun as a star, the Italians analysed how it works, and the Dutch explored the mysteries of solar activity. The assembly system could not have been simpler, with each team 'filling' a module, in the form of an orange segment, with screens, interactive elements, posters, etc. When placed together these five segments formed a dome, reinforced with a tubular structure, and illuminated by an overhanging sun. When assembled, the modules resembled the command station of a space shuttle, packed with screens, and easy to dismantle and transport. But the life of Fly me to the Sun will not end with 'Week 2000' - its first mission is as a travelling exhibition. After its inauguration at the Noordwijk exhibition, it will be on show at each of the partner science centres and museums before hopefully being launched into a wider orbit. 'The idea of developing and jointly managing European initiatives between the museums has not yet been universally accepted,' admits Walter Staveloz, chief coordinator of the EPOS project. 'My hope is that experiences of the kind held during Week 2000 will serve to convince the sceptics.'

Contact
Walter Staveloz
Ecsite, Bruxelles (BE)
Fax : +32-2-6475098
wstaveloz@ecsite.net

To find out more:

The EPOS project site: http://www.ecsite.net/epos/public/homepage.htm
General ESA site: http://www.esa.int/
The ESA's "solar season" :Ulysse, SOHO and Cluster
http://sci2.estec.esa.nl/specialevents/solarseason/
The ESA's scientific programmes: http://sci.esa.int/

       
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