Nineteen students from Kenya and South Africa have been participating in a Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy training initiative, which is being run in partnership with the Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative.
The initiative, called the DARA-KOTI programme, funded by the University of Leeds, aims to provide introductory astronomy training to science and engineering students or graduates, as well as individuals currently working in industry who are looking at diversifying their skills by learning concepts in the astronomy field.
The DARA-KOTI programme builds on the original DARA project (funded by the UK-South Africa Newton Fund) that offered basic training in astrophysics and radio astronomy to science and engineering graduates based in the 8 Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Africa partner countries. DARA was established in 2014 with the project offering both technical and hands-on training to 6 cohorts of students since 2015.
The SARAO Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) has played an instrumental role in delivering the technical and observational training in radio astronomy as part of the DARA project, with the last cohort of 39 students hosted at the facility in 2019. Overall, DARA has trained over 300 students from the SKA Africa partner countries with 36 students offered postgraduate opportunities through the DARA advanced training to pursue a Masters or Doctoral degree at a UK or African-based institution. Many other students have been partially supported by the project to complete their postgraduate studies.
The DARA-KOTI programme includes South African students from the University of Fort Hare, the University of Venda and Walter Sisulu University, amongst other universities. This was the first time that the DARA basic training in astronomy was offered to South African students, targeting students mainly from historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs). Most students were undertaking a Bachelor of Science or Honours degree at the start of the training programme in September 2023.
“It is great that we have finally had the opportunity to offer training in the skills required for astronomy to students from the HDIs in South Africa,” says Prof. Melvin Hoare from the University of Leeds and Principal Investigator of the DARA project. “These students are similar to those we have trained in the partner countries in that they have usually had no prior opportunities to explore the exciting world of astronomy and they are grabbing it with both hands, ” says Prof. Hoare.
“Following a workshop with the HDIs in 2019 on DARA Big Data, we have been looking at ways to include all of the HDIs in the project’s training initiatives, ” adds Dr Bonita de Swardt, SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development. She further adds: “The HDIs have been mostly under-represented in training initiatives, but we hope that targeted initiatives such as their inclusion in the DARA-KOTI basic astronomy training will lead to more students from HDIs taking up training opportunities offered by DARA and SARAO in the near future.”
The DARA-KOTI astronomy training is an eight week programme (consisting of two week courses/units) that span across half a year. This spread in the training makes the programme more accessible to students undertaking full-time studies and to those individuals who are employed. The students completed the DARA Foundation Astrophysics course online in September 2023, which was followed by practical training in optical astronomy. The latter was hosted at the Turkana Basin Institute in northern Kenya from 26 September to 6 October 2023. All South African students travelled to Kenya for the training with most experiencing their first time on a plane and visiting a foreign country.
“Coming from studying just using a limited part of the electromagnetic spectrum, astronomy training in Kenya afforded me the opportunity to understand earth better by not only looking at earth, but also looking at space and beyond the earth’s atmosphere to understand what you see here on earth,” says Andile Fani, a Master’s student at the University of the Witwatersrand, whose research focuses on spatial analysis using remotely sensed data.
The practical radio astronomy training entails the students being hosted for one week at HartRAO and another week at the North West University in Potchefstroom. The course will cover an introduction to radio telescopes, receiver systems and VLBI techniques with hands-on training using the instrumentation and computational resources located at both institutions. The students will additionally participate in the national 2024 Coding Summer School hosted online by the Centre of High Performance Computing (CHPC) and the National Institute of Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS) which started on 29 January 2024. For this component of the training, the students are hosted at a physical node at North West University where access to computational resources for the school and overall support for running of the local event are provided.
Shirley Odhiambo, a student from Nairobi studying astrophysics focusing on optical astronomy, says: “The week at HartRAO was intensive with a lot of info shared each day. It has been awesome learning new things every day and hearing ideas from different people in the field.”
SARAO’s Africa Programme Manager, Carla Mitchell, comments that “The SARAO Africa Programme aims to bring together all elements and activities of radio astronomy in order to realise the astronomy development objective of the partner countries, but also to contribute to the full science vision of the SKA project to ultimately expand across other African countries. The Africa programme strategy is based on three main pillars, Human Capital Development, Research and Technology infrastructure and Funding, Governance and Partnerships.”
Mitchell continues: “The DARA-KOTI astronomy training is an excellent example of such a partnership, and is a necessary initiative to forwarding the goal of capacity building within this arena, and positively impacts the vision of the programme.”
For more information, contact:
Dr Bonita de Swardt
SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development