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Calendar in the Sky

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By Bryan J. Mendez, Ph.D.

Whenever I meet someone lately and mention that I am an astronomer, their first response is to ask about the end of the world in 2012. They’d have heard about some kind of planetary alignment, supposedly predicted by the Mayans, that will cause a great catastrophe for humanity. I quickly try to reassure them that, no, the ancient Maya predicted no such thing; it is just a misinterpretation of one of their calendars. I go on to explain that there is no big planetary alignment in 2012, and, even if there were, it wouldn’t mean anything. People are usually satisfied with that, because they weren’t seriously worried about the end of the world; they were just looking for a better understanding of something they didn’t know anything about. 

Still, it never ceases to amaze me just how easy it is for bad information to spread, and how difficult it is for good information to get around. It reinforces the need for better science education in our society. There is so much information being created and consumed on a daily basis in our modern culture, and people need the tools that will help them discriminate between the reliable and the ridiculous. For most people, a misunderstanding about planetary science isn’t going to do any harm to themselves or society. However, misunderstandings about biological or earth sciences could have enormous ramifications for us all. This is why I work with a group of scientists and educators at the University of California at Berkeley dedicated to improving science education for all. 

One of our newer projects is called “Calendar in the Sky”; it is funded by NASA and has the goal of engaging the public in NASA science topics, such as space exploration, astronomy, planetary and earth sciences, etc. We are especially interested in engaging Latinos in the program. NASA’s education programs generally are interested in increasing participation from demographic sectors that are currently under-represented in science. This is both philosophically and practically important for NASA. On the one hand, NASA is funded by the American public, so, all groups deserve to benefit equally from the knowledge it uncovers. As the demographic mix of our nation changes, it is critical for our political and economic health that we have a population well versed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

There are 50 million Latinos in the United States, the second largest population of Latinos in the world, behind Brazil and Mexico. The U.S. Census Bureau expects this number to triple by the year 2050. However, a study in 2005 by the American Institute of Physics found that only 4% of all scientists and engineers are Latinos. In astronomy, the percentage of Latinos is more like 1%. If this trend continues, Latinos will be left out of the future technical workforce of America. This is why “Calendar in the Sky” is focused on engaging Latinos in science.

“Calendar in the Sky” builds on the idea that in order for Latinos to be engaged in learning science, they need to find it culturally relevant. But, science has suffered from the misperception that it is an activity separated from culture. Over the past decade, the Center for Science Education at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory has created programs to highlight the role of science in culture. Some of the best examples come from the indigenous people of the Americas, particularly the Maya of Mesoamerica. Our experience has been that, even though most Latinos in the U.S. cannot trace any heritage directly to the Maya, they often share a sense of kinship with them, perhaps because so many Latinos have some native ancestry.  

At the height of the ancient Maya civilization, more than one thousand years ago, their priests and kings had a deep knowledge of astronomy. This allowed them to keep calendars that synched well with the seasons, allowing for the regulation of food production. Their engineers built cities of astounding scale and complexity, allowing the population to grow and flourish for centuries. They incorporated their scientific knowledge into their religion, art, architecture and inscriptions. Though much of the ancient culture was lost, the Maya of today still live with this integrated view of science and culture. Rural farmers have learned to use the sky as a calendar to help them know when to plant and harvest their crops. For example, in Guatemala, Mayan farmers know that when the sun makes its first passage through the zenith (directly overhead), the rains will soon come, so this is the prime time to plant crops. They also watch for the time when the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, rises along with the sun and the Milky Way is overhead at night; when this occurs, they need to bend down the corn stalks to prevent them from rotting in the event of a late rainfall. 

It has been our great pleasure to learn about Maya culture from friends and colleagues in the Maya community who have helped us design, plan and conduct science education experiences for American audiences. Over the years we have worked with our partners to create webcasts from Chichén Itzá, a teachers’ guide about astronomical alignments in Maya architecture, an interactive website, traveling photo exhibits,  teacher training programs and sponsored community events. 

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