A CASCA-Westar visit to Ashcroft and Cache Creek

By / par Jon Willis (University of Victoria)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn / l’automne 2018)

The CASCA-Westar outreach program links educators and community groups across Canada to professional astronomers. The program offers isolated communities – whether geographically or economically – the opportunity to hear about the best that astronomy has to offer. Over twenty Canadian astronomers and CASCA members have made themselves available as CASCA-Westar lecturers to travel to remote communities and offer classroom activities for school kids, curriculum workshops for teachers and popular public talks.

I became a CASCA-Wester lecturer last year. Like many professional astronomers, I regularly engage with local schools and have developed a number of themed presentations for audiences ranging from elementary schools to seniors groups. I was therefore pleased to receive an invitation from CASCA-Westar in the early summer of 2018 to visit Ashcroft and Cache Creek in the interior of BC. My visit was hosted by Jenn Casorso, a youth coordinator with the Bonaparte Indian Band.

Ashcroft and nearby Cache Creek are both about an hour’s drive west of Kamloops – a leisurely day’s travel by ferry and car from my usual haunts on Vancouver Island. Ashcroft is a village of some 1,600 residents located on the banks of the Thompson River just south of a major confluence with the Bonaparte river. Nearby Cache Creek adds another 1,000 people to the local population. Both settlements were founded in the 1860s during the Cariboo gold rush on land traditionally inhabited by the Secwepemc people.

My busy day began at the Desert Sands Community School in Ashcroft with a presentation on “Everything you ever wanted to know about the Big Bang but were afraid to ask”. This is a prop-driven cosmology talk that features pupils expanding with the Universe, weighty chunks of meteorite, exploding balloons and the Period Tablecloth. It is a very interactive presentation and immense fun to deliver – it certainly warms the kids up to ask a barrage of questions.

After lunch we headed over to Cache Creek Elementary School for a “Little Guide to the Night Sky”. This presentation uses 10 spectacular images of planets, moons, stars, nebulae and galaxies to take the pupils on a journey from Earth to our nearest massive galaxy, Andromeda. The Discovery Channel and the internet had prepped my audience with a lot of topics on which they expected answers and I was very much saved by the bell at the end of the school day!

My enjoyable and rewarding day concluded with a public talk at Ashcroft Community Centre on the “Search for Life in the Universe” and welcomed residents of all ages to learn about the prospects for discovering life beyond Earth.

I hope that my audiences learned as much as I did through the day and I also hope that my CASCA-Westar visit lays the foundation for a lasting relationship with these communities and the opportunity to work with them again in the future.

END NOTE: Jon Willis is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Victoria. He combines research into cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe with teaching and writing about astrobiology. He is the author of “All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life” (Yale 2016).

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