United by the love of space: how AstroSandbox is creating an astronomy community in Ukraine

22 Mar 2023
Учасники Астробоїв

Nine Ukrainians took part in the International Astronomy Olympiad in 2021, and they brought home nine medals. Even despite the full-scale war in their country, Ukrainian students continue to study space science, participate in olympiads, and develop the future of Ukrainian space science. One of the biggest contributors is the Astrosandbox project, which is supported by Association Noosphere.

We spoke with AstroSandbox founder Taisia Karasyova about studying astronomy in Ukraine, the challenges of Covid and war, and Ukrainian youth who have overcome so much to compete with their peers from abroad.

– Tell us about the AstroSandbox project. What is it, and how did it come about?

– I have been interested in astronomy since I was 9 years old. In 2011, I was inspired by an exhibition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight, and I began studying this science. When I transferred to a physics and mathematics lyceum, I had the opportunity to study astronomy not from encyclopedias, but instead more with mathematics and physics. But even in Kyiv, there was a great lack of resources. It was almost impossible to find an astronomy community for kids my age. When I was in the 5th grade, the Kyiv Center for Children and Youth had a club for older children. However, when I grew up, a club for younger children appeared.

And then, and even now, there are no good school books on astronomy for children in Ukraine. No really in-depth ones. So astronomy was always a pretty rare interest among schoolchildren, because students go where there are resources for studying the subject. This made it difficult for those who were interested in astronomy and decided to study it. There wasn’t even a site, like, for example, in mathematics, where you can look at questions from past olympiads. 

Therefore, I had the idea to create a project that would solve these problems and give students a resource to study astronomy and create a community. That’s what we are working on now.

We have created an archive of exercises from different competition levels, from district olympiads to international ones, so that everyone can find exercises that are right for them. Then we started creating a series of webinars for schoolchildren on various astronomy topics. We’ve been doing this since spring 2020, and have already recorded a total of 56 webinars. This is a useful resource because many courses, such as those on Coursera, are created for people studying astronomy professionally, and we needed a course that would introduce schoolchildren to the topics and provide them with material for solving problems.

We are also building a community.  We hold an annual Astronomical Battles tournament, for which Noosphere provides us with prizes and participation gifts. Competitors are given four hours to solve a set of six problems. After this, they meet another group that worked on the same problems, and they take turns challenging each other by analyzing the solutions. Every time the participants meet with a new team. This model not only has competitors solve problems, but also conduct a sort of polemic to evaluate physical models and to determine which effects are most important in problems. 

We also run two clubs. The first, which we run in cooperation with the Institute of Aerospace Technologies at Kyiv Polytechnical Institute,  is for older high schoolers and university students. The other is a more elementary level run in collaboration with the Kvanta math club for grades 5-9. We want it to be more than just a popular science circle, because there are enough such resources for grades 5-9. We want to introduce them to science so that they learn to solve real problems.

Astrobattles participant

– Are children interested in astronomy these days? How many children have joined your initiatives?

– Our Telegram channel has more than 400 subscribers, and our YouTube channel has a little less. But the development of our project coincided with the pandemic and the war, so it is difficult to estimate how many children would have been willing to join under normal conditions. The Ministry of Education and Science canceled its olympiads, so that also affected how many children come to the olympiads we hold.

For example, together with the Lviv National University, we held an online astronomy olympiad, and 150 people took part in the first round. In classical olympiads, there are usually about 4,000 participants for the entire country at all levels,  with individual school competition.

– How do you get children involved in your activities?

– We make announcements on our channel, and the children come from there. In addition, we publish a newsletter about Astrobattles from the Institute for the Modernization of the Content of Education. We also have our content shared by other astronomy channels and university social media pages.

In the first year, many children came to us after a letter from the Institute for the Modernization of the Content of Education. But as a result of the fact that there were no olympiads in 2021-22, interest dropped a little. Therefore, in those years, we had to gather our audience on our own.

But now the classical olympiads are being resumed, there is an internet Olympiad, and there will also be a Student Olympiad. Therefore, we hope that interest will be revived and we will be able to use not only our audience to spread our information and content, but also the Institute for Modernization of the Content of Education.

– How many people are on the project team?

– We officially have 13 people listed on our webpage. These are the people who regularly participate in our initiatives. But in total, 19 people have joined the project. These include people who work with us periodically. Every year, when we hold Astrobattles, we gather our jury and problem writers, who may not be part of the project team, but work with it consistently. That full group comprises approximately 25 people.

– You talked about the difficulties associated with the pandemic and the war. And how has the war affected your work in general?

– We had a webinar scheduled for February 25, 2022, but we had to take a long pause both in our webinars and in our general activities. Our first club meeting took place a month after the start of the war, while the first webinar took place a month and a half after that. Unfortunately, the webinars have become less regular due to the fact that we are all scattered around the world and everyone has more of their own challenges to deal with. It also became more difficult to gather participants for Astrobattles, because the children are now in different countries too. Some study in the summer, while others have moved .

We are also taking part in joint initiatives with other teachers, like preparing the Ukrainian team for the International Junior Olympiad in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Air raids and blackouts made this work very difficult. It has not been possible to conduct these events in-person, either, as the children are scattered all over, and they are affected by air raids and power outages differently in different places. We have had to change the schedule. If earlier during olympiads, we gave children a set of problems to solve in four hours, now we have to give them one problem to solve in half an hour. If there is no air raid, we then give the next one. Therefore, sometimes it is necessary to prepare two sets of tasks, in case some of the children are not able to participate on the first day. If we gather children in person, there has to be an air raid shelter on premises. That is, there were more organizational complications.

– You said that you are preparing children for international olympiads. Does the level of training for our students differ from other countries?

 – Of course it is different. We still have many olympiads in all our schools. Sometimes I hear narratives that these olympiads are relics of the Soviet Union and should be abolished. But that would be a bad decision. Olympiads are very common in our country, and children are able to compete in them.

But AstroSandbox is our volunteer activity. We cannot replace systematic training. In some countries, the team selected for the international olympiads practices with its coach three times a week during the summer. And this is probably more effective than Ukrainian children relying on self-education.

But overall, although we are not at the forefront, we are also not at the back of the line. In 2021, we had the most successful experience in the entire history of participation in the International Olympiad, winning  two gold, three silver and four bronze medals. We had nine participants, and we brought back nine medals.

Last year, considering all the problems with the preparation, we still achieved a strong result with one silver and three bronze medals. All things considered, our children have potential, resilience and good knowledge. Therefore, I would say that we are competitive.

I am currently in the Netherlands, and there is no spirit of olympiads and tournaments here. But it is important for schoolchildren to develop their abilities and find like-minded people.

– The National Internet Astronomy Olympiad was completed recently. How did it go? 

– This was the second time this olympiad was held. Last year, unfortunately, the competition could not be completed, because the final stage was scheduled for the end of February. What makes this olympiad special is that it’s the first one that focuses not only on high school students, but also on grades 8 and 9. When we started it, we were very serious about creating a junior group, since the Ministry of Education and Science Olympiads, for example, are designed for grades 10 and 11.

The first stage of the Olympiad is held online and is very simple. It offers test tasks so that everyone can try their hand without fearing that it will be too difficult. 150 people took part in the first round, with 12 advancing. Ten of those came to Lviv for the offline stage. It wasn’t a very big total, but this is only the first time that the Olympiad has been completed.

I was glad to see new faces, because in 2021-2022, most of the participants in the Astrobattles had already participated in the Olympiads before. Now, a lot of new children have joined. I think that the idea of creating separate tasks for grades 8-9 will allow them to compete with their peers, and not be afraid to try their hand with high school students.

– How important is it to have a community of like-minded people in astronomy education?

– It is extremely important. We can see this in  classical olympiads. As a rule, the strongest competitors come from places  where there is already a pre-existing astronomy interest community or a teacher who interests children in the field. It is rare to find talents where these communities don’t exist. Therefore, it is important to have support and people around, not only because the kids can participate in these challenges together, but because we are all are social beings and need interaction with others. In my school, it was my experience that children went to olympiads in subjects for which there were clubs or associations.

We have a chat in Astrosandbox, where people sometimes look for a team for hackathons. They would not have participated in it without a team, but this way they have the opportunity to come together. They can also find like-minded people for other initiatives. Or they can just talk about life, discuss astronomy news, or laugh at something. It creates an atmosphere where they are not alone, and this provides essential motivation and support.