Living Maths brings STEM to life with NASA astronaut and country-wide tour

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'Astronaut' Ariel Jehoshaphat with Dr Don Thomas at the Living Maths Space Tour event at Protea Heights Academy on 12 September. Dr Thomas is a former NASA Astronaut, a veteran of 4 shuttle missions and has logged over 1000 hours in space. Ariel won 'best costume' on the night.

By Steve Sherman 

It is abundantly clear that the world around us is changing at a rapid pace.  

Technology is advancing exponentially and the tools that we use, namely computers, cellphones, cars, electricity, etc. are evolving and new models and designs are being released quicker than ever before.  As a parent, I want my daughters to play a meaningful role in the world around them.  In order to achieve this, I need to ensure that they have all the tools they need to thrive in the 21st century.   

What are these tools?  They need to be mathematically and scientifically literate and they need to be able to solve problems in creative ways.  I run a STEM based NGO, Living Maths and we promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths support  to about 4500 students a week in Cape Town and around the world over the internet.  

Yes, I am aware that maths is not everyone’s favourite subject. My response? If you say that you like music but not maths then you are a hypocrite! Why would I state something like this?  Simply put, just because you don’t enjoy hiphop music or Yodelling, it does not mean that you stop liking music altogether.  

In the same way, just because you don’t like doing sums or fractions, you cannot say you don’t like maths — you can only say that you don’t like that part of maths.  There are many other parts and this is what we enjoy revealing to students. I will admit, that we need to think outside of the box to win people over and one of those ideas is annual Living Maths Space Tour.  I had a dream to bring an astronaut to South Africa and take them to a few cities for public talks and school visits.  I wanted to show the glamourous side of STEM by showing the possibilities!  

At the start of November of 2017, I hosted former NASA Astronaut, Dr Don Thomas, a veteran of four shuttle missions and an extraordinary speaker. I have worked with Dr Thomas for about 10 years and he is unbelievable with kids and he has a knack for inspiring young people.  We spent a few days in Cape Town then we moved up to Johannesburg and then finally ended our space tour in Durban. 

During this time we received incredible coverage on all the major radio stations, TV shows, newspapers and social media.  We hosted seven Public talks in two weeks, which were all full and we had about 10 School visits in total.  I estimate that we reached over two million people if you take into account the Media and school visits! In 2018 we then travelled up the Garden Route, stopping in all the major towns, and some that were off the beaten track.  This year we travelled to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Lesotho.  The public talks were packed with children who were fired up about STEM.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing. This was a major scientific achievement and is still considered impressive when we look at the technology that was used to get astronauts onto the moon!  Problem solving, maths and science were the real heroes. The women computers that were portrayed in the Hidden Figures movie were some of the examples of human intellect that made the landing possible.  

Israel recently attempted to land a rover on the moon. Despite all the latest technology, software and tools, they were not able to land the craft successfully, but I am confident that for them failure will not be an obstacle, rather it will spur them on even further. 

Dr Thomas’s message about not giving up on your dreams is important. He only flew his first shuttle mission at 39 years old.  What most people do not know is that he took many years and rejection to make it that far. 

Despite orbiting the Earth almost 700 times, meeting his hero, Neil Armstrong and having him attend one of his launches was a definite highlight for Dr Thomas. 

Many students bemoan the fact that they find the STEM subjects tough.  Sometimes they can be challenging, however, if everything we did was easy and there were no challenges, we would never celebrate the victories.  Climbing out of your comfort zone allows you to grow as a person!

The 2019 Space tour took place from 11 – 20 Sept 2019. For more details and future events visit www.livingmaths.com

To download a PDF of the Chronicle for October, click here

To read the editor’s column this month, titled ‘Why we need more difficult females’ click here

To read the most read story online in September, click here

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