Sci-Enza’s mobile planetarium tour lights up interest at 17 Tshwane schools

Posted on November 15, 2023

A world of scientific wonder and of space exploration – in their own school halls! That’s what 3 500 Tshwane learners experienced when Sci-Enza, the University of Pretoria’s science centre, took its new mobile planetarium on the road and set it up at 17 schools. As learners sat mesmerised inside the planetarium’s inflatable white dome to watch a projected presentation about the solar system, an interest in the night sky was lit up among many.

The school visits formed part of Sci-Enza’s ongoing community outreach projects, and took place during the fourth term. This proved to be great timing, as aspects around space science, the planets and the solar system are tackled in the “Earth and Beyond” section of the Grade 4 to 6 learner curriculum during the latter part of the school year, says Sci-Enza manager Puleng Tsie.

Click on the image below for more photos from Sci-Enza’s mobile planetarium tour

A world of scientific wonder and of space exploration – in their own school halls! Through the interactive presentation Sci-Enza aims to help teachers dispel the myth that science is difficult, abstract or inaccessible.

The presentation was developed and scripted by Sci-Enza staff members. The dome can host up to 35 children at a time. 

“The presentation was well-received and has helped many a learner to visualise some of the key concepts that they had already touched on in class,” Tsie said. “Our role is to support schools and to provide them with teaching tools that they might not have on hand. Through our interactive presentations we help teachers to dispel the myth that science is difficult, abstract or inaccessible.”

She believes many learners will now look upon the night sky with new appreciation and recognise some of the details that they were taught. “Some learners, for instance, did not realise that some of the stars that they see at night are in fact planets.”

One school visit in particular tested the Sci-Enza team’s mettle in thinking out of the box – or “out of the dome”, so to speak. Staff were worried that the dim lighting inside the dome would make it difficult for learners with hearing disabilities from the Transoranje School for the Deaf to “read” the facial expressions and sign language of their interpreter during the presentation. It was therefore decided to paint the face and hands of the interpreter with luminous face paint.

“It worked quite well, and ensured really great interaction with the learners,” Tsie added. 

'A lasting impression on young minds'

Hendrik Olwagen, principal of Simon Bekker Primary School in Pretoria West, described the opportunity that his learners had to experientially stargaze and delve into the wonders of the universe as “nothing short of mesmerising and educational”.

“The expertise in showcasing the different constellations, planets, the sun, and the moon has left a lasting impression on our young minds. The interactive and engaging approach employed by the Sci-Enza team introduced complex concepts of space science and astronomy to our young learners and were both effective and inspiring,” he said.

His sentiments were shared by Fareeda Matthews, a teacher at Valhalla Primary School, who described the quality of the presentation as “exceptional”. 

She was also very thankful that the mobile planetarium's visit was free of charge to the school.

“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of our learners. Going to a science centre is often too expensive for most. Therefore, many of our children have never seen the inside of a planetarium,” she added.

The outreach project and the dome were funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), through funds administered by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), a business unit of the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Community engagement a core part of Sci-Enza’s mandate

NRF/SAASTA also made funds available to Sci-Enza to take their “Night Skies” presentation to schools in the Tshwane South School district. Last year they were able to take a programme on coding and robotics to 13 schools, also through funding from DSI .

Sci-Enza is the oldest interactive science centre in South Africa, and has its roots in hands-on physics demonstrations presented in the late 1970s on campus.

According to Tsie, community engagement remains a core part of Sci-Enza’s mandate. She expressed her thanks to the funders who help to make such endeavours possible, as she too realises that small transport budgets are a debilitating factor in many schools’ ability to organise outings for their learners to the Sci-Enza Centre on the UP campus. 

“It is a more cost-effective option for many schools if we are able to take our mobile displays and presentations to them,” added Tsie, who hopes that more funding will be made available so that her team of seven staff members can visit more schools next year.

  • There are over 200 science-related displays and a camera obscura that provides an all-round view of the area to enjoy at the Sci-Enza Centre, situated in the Technical Services Building on UP’s Hatfield Campus. Entry is free, but a fee is applicable if groups want to enjoy a facilitated school programme or a science show programme.
  • Sci-Enza is open Monday to Friday, from 08:00 to 16:30.
  • A holiday programme will be followed during the December holidays from 4 December 2023, with a cost involved.

For more information, contact Sci-Enza at [email protected] or 012-420-3767.

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