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05/14/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 05/14/2024 10:31

U of T astronomers and Kâpapâmahchakwêw – Wandering Spirit School collaborate on science programming for Indigenous students

Published: May 14, 2024

By Michael Pereira

A group of astronomers from the University of Toronto and students, teachers and caregivers from Toronto's Kâpapâmahchakwêw - Wandering Spirit School recently shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience: witnessing a total solar eclipse.

The April 8 gathering, which took place in Chiefswood Park on Six Nations of the Grand River, saw the astronomers bring telescopes with solar filters that allowed viewers to observe sunspots and watch as the moon slowly eclipsed the sun. The event also served as a forum for young learners and community members to share traditional knowledge and ask plenty of questions.

It was one of many engagements planned as part of a partnership between U of T's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Kâpapâmahchakwêw - Wandering Spirit School, which was founded in 1977 and gives students from kindergarten to Grade 12 the opportunity to learn about Anishinaabe cultural traditions.

Totality at Chiefswood Park (photo by Kara Manovich)

In the future, there are also plans for a coding club, mentoring and tutoring programs, and training for teachers.

"Kâpapâmahchakwêw - Wandering Spirit School is grateful for the growing partnership with Dunlap because it provides an opportunity to practise reciprocity in knowledge sharing," said Elise Twyford, the school's principal. "The students and community learned about - and experienced - astrophysics and astronomy, and also had the opportunity to build their skills in sharing traditional knowledge and world views.

"I appreciate the care and thoughtfulness of the Dunlap and University of Toronto team in collaborating with Kâpapâmahchakwêw students as partners in learning."

The roots of the partnership stretch back to 2022 when Emma Stromberg, Indigenous partnership adviser at the Faculty of Arts & Science, and Associate Professor Susan Hill, director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies, approached Dunlap with an opportunity to work with teachers and students from Kâpapâmahchakwêw.

A close-up photo of the moon totally eclipsing the sun on April 8 above Chiefswood Park (photo by Suresh Sivanandam)

"We wanted to see if we could match up the needs and interests of the school to resources at U of T, to build something that can be sustained," Stromberg says. "Consistent with U of T's commitments to reconciliation, it is incumbent on all of us to think of ways to redress, in small and big ways, the impacts of settler colonialism and push resources into the community wherever possible."

Some 20 members of the Dunlap community have since volunteered to help, with many of them recently participating in a workshop with John Croutch from the Office of Indigenous Initiatives to learn about the continued impacts of settler colonialism and what it means to be an ally to Indigenous Peoples.

The U of T astronomers said the opportunity to share a total solar eclipse was a memorable moment for everyone involved.

"You could hear lots of kids screaming in excitement and people gasping in awe at seeing totality," said Associate Professor Suresh Sivanandam, interim director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science. "When I walked out of there, I thought, 'These are the moments in my job where I feel completely fulfilled because I helped other people experience the joy of astronomy.'"

Students recreate the total solar eclipse with paint and pastels on black paper (photo by Emma Stromberg)

Professor Roberto Abraham, chair of the faculty's David A. Dunlap department of astronomy and astrophysics, said he was the same age as some of the students when he first saw a total solar eclipse.

"It was magic," he said. "Once you see a total solar eclipse, you won't be the same person afterwards."

Earlier this year, Sivanandam and Abraham visited the school to meet students, teachers and staff and hear about how astronomers at U of T can best support them.

For Twyford, the relationship with U of T immerses Kâpapâmahchakwêw students in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics in ways that wouldn't be possible in the classroom.

"I know that many students now see the wonder and possibility of these sciences and are even more motivated to continue their learning," Twyford said. "It also helps to complement the traditional and cultural."