What better way to get pupils interested in maths than bringing a real-life astronaut to their school.
This was the idea behind a series of public talks organised by the Living Maths NGO which brought Dr Don Thomas to South Africa as part of the Space Tour.
The first talk took place at Jan Van Riebeeck Primary School in Gardens on Monday October 30.
The space adventurer also visited several other Cape Town schools as part of the lecture series and will be speaking to pupils in Johannesburg and Durban.
Dr Thomas, who has been in space four times as part of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) missions, said he hoped his visit would inspire youngsters.
He had wanted to go to space since he was six years old.
That was when the United States of America put their first astronaut into space. At his school in Cleveland, Ohio, where he grew up, he watched the launch with fellow pupils in the gymnasium on television. “As soon as the astronaut was in space I said ‘I want to do that’. It’s been a passion of mine since I was a little boy. Watching that was the moment of inspiration that changed my life. That’s what we hope to do here.”
However, it wasn’t until he was 39 years old, that he finally achieved his dream of going to space. His first mission was in July 1994.
Once you get selected for the Nasa programme, says Dr Thomas, you go through four years of rigorous training. You train as a team and prepare for the worst case scenario. “I wasn’t sure if I could accomplish it, but nobody told me that I couldn’t so I always had that dream.”
Dr Thomas said that the Living Maths project was all about getting pupils interested in maths and science and to get them thinking about the future.
He said he first visited South Africa 10 years ago and that was where he met Steve Sherman of Living Maths. “We’ve been working together since.”
Some of the work they do includes video streaming lectures with several schools. “We had been working together virtually and he said ‘hey, how about coming here and doing a tour of public lectures’”.
Dr Thomas spoke about several aspects of living in space, including the food. “The space food is not the highlight of the mission. I always say that I would never go to a restaurant that serves space food,” he joked.
“Watching the earth was the most incredible experience for me. The zero gravity is fun but the thing that you’ll never forget is looking out the window and seeing our planet.”
He said two of the key messages he hoped people would take away from the talk was to never give up on dreams and to protect our planet. Over the years, he says, you can see how much of the rainforest has been damaged for example.
Dr Thomas also did a book signing at the talks. His book Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission tells the story of his second mission into space. “I’ve just always wanted to share what it’s like up in space.”
However, even if you don’t become an astronaut, you can still end up working for Nasa. He said these organisations were in need of mathematicians, engineers and technicians. “We need a wide range of people. Most of the people are not flying in space, there are a small group that get to do it. There are many ways you can participate and contribute to the programme. We hope that we can excite young students. Once you’ve lit that spark, these young pupils will work hard in school. That’s what happened to me.”
Mr Sherman said they would be planning more of these kind of talks to get pupils excited about maths.
He said that maths was a key subject at school, as it encouraged problem solving and creativity.
Mr Sherman added that fewer matriculants were going through with quality passes, which would have a negative effect on the economy.
The organisation, which started in 1995, runs Saturday classes in Philippi and weekly classes in Gugulethu .
Mr Sherman, from Claremont, said the lessons are fully sponsored and every class involves a meal.
“It’s our mandate to get as many quality passes in mathematics as we can. You have way more options when you have mathematics. A lot of kids are struggling not because they can’t do it, it’s because there is an issue with teaching or a lack of resources.”
He said they would be planning more public talks to inspire pupils.
“We are not just stopping here with astronauts. We are trying to encourage people to get thinking in unorthodox ways.”