Expert stargazers see bright future for astronomy

As interest grows, they suggest it be included in maths, physics curricula

ASTRONOMY could well find its way into students' physics and mathematics curricula.

In view of astronomy's growing popularity in Singapore, that was one of the suggestions explored at the first South-east Asia Galaxy Forum held at the Science Centre Singapore earlier this month, on March 9.

Interest in astronomy is picking up, said experts in the field, and that could contribute significantly to the development of other sciences within the classroom and also of the new space industry the Government is developing.

"During the past 25 years, Singaporeans have been increasingly interested in astronomy, which is one of the most rapidly-moving sciences of our day," said Dr K. K. Cheong, an Astronomical Society of Singapore committee member.

In the early 1980s, there were no groups or organised activities relating to astronomy, he added, a stark contrast to the scene today, with about eight observatories and some 30 astronomy societies and clubs in Singapore.

Last year, more than 6,500 people visited the Science Centre's observatory - up from 6,222 the year before, and 5,585 in 2010.

More have also been participating in Space Academy camps conducted by the Science Centre and the Singapore Space and Technology Association for youth aged nine to 19 since 2010. The most recent camp, in December last year, had 203 participants, more than a 60 per cent jump from the 125 at the first camp.

In schools, some student astronomy clubs report a growth in membership, and more are buying equipment such as telescopes for stargazing.

"We've certainly seen greater interest from students in the last one to two years and now have four telescopes costing about $1,500 each for students' use when the weather is clear," said Mr Wong Tze Yang, the teacher in charge of Raffles Institution's (RI) 100-strong astronomy club.

"To learn about how planets form and be able to study and appreciate the scale of the universe, it's all really amazing and humbling," said RI astronomy club chairman Oh Wei Shen, 17, who has travelled to Australia, Malaysia and Japan just to stargaze.

RI has traditionally done well at international astronomy olympiads, contributing to Singapore's best showing at the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics with the nation's first gold medal bagged by RI student Wang Ye last year. The school will also be sending one of the largest teams to the inaugural Singapore Astronomy Olympiad later this week on Saturday.

The growing popularity of astronomy in schools speaks to its appeal among "young people in particular", said the Science Centre's chief executive Lim Tit Meng.

"We've found that two things most inspire and fascinate young minds: dinosaurs and the space and universe above us - that is, astronomy," said Dr Lim.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 18, 2013

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