Astronomy

Bringing the Gift of Hope to Ukrainian Kids through Astronomy

The war in Ukraine has taken a terrible toll, and the damage extends far from the shifting battle lines. In addition to the many soldiers and civilians who’ve died, over 2.5 million children have been displaced within the country. The war has also exacerbated the problems of orphaned children, who are especially vulnerable in urban areas where the fighting has been most intense. Ensuring these children and their families can get adequate food and medical care is always challenging. Ensuring they have access to education and counseling services so their lives are not severely interrupted is even more so.

But there’s also the need for inspiration and hope for the future, which becomes all the more important in times of war and displacement. This is the purpose of Earthlings Hub, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing astronomy and science education to refugee and orphan children in Ukraine. Founded in 2022 by members of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS), Earthlings Hub is made up of scientists, teachers, and psychologists working to provide students with access to scientific research, equipment, and an inquiry-based educational program that goes beyond the standard school curriculum.

The organization was co-founded in 2022 by Julia Brodsky, an astrophysicist, the STEM Education Lead at BMSIS, a former NASA astronaut instructor, and the founder and CEO of Art of Inquiry (an online science program for middle school students). Her fellow co-founders include Dr. Kaurov, a research associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, a visiting academic at the Institute for Advanced Study, and an affiliate research scientist at the BMSIS; and Dr. Turchaninova, a world-renowned educator, scientist and the founder of the Parents’ College and Education without School initiatives. 

Earthlings Hub Advisory Board. Credit: Earthlings Hub

The Earthlings Hub’s advisory board includes many notable individuals, including former NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, prominent Ukrainian psychologist Tamara Yatsenko, Northwestern University’s professor of Learning and Cognition Uri Wilensky, AI visionary Joscha Bach, and other esteemed members. As Brodsky related to Universe Today via email, the war touched her family personally. Her husband was born in Ukraine, and she wondered how scientists like herself could provide help where it was needed the most. As a long-time international educator, she could envision how space science can inspire and unite people of all ages:

“When the war in Ukraine started, I was wondering how I could help the refugee and orphan children not to lose hope, remain excited about learning and connect with peers and mentors. Together with my friend and mentor,  prominent educator Yulia Turchaninova, and my awesome colleague from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, Sasha Kaurov, we started the Earthlings Hub – a non-profit educational initiative helping children of Ukraine.”

The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns provided much of the inspiration for the organization’s approach. As schools were forced to suspend classes, educators and families needed to become more flexible to ensure that children still got the education they needed. Earthlings Hub leverages advancements in digital technology to allow children displaced by war to continue learning. In particular, the availability of satellite internet (via Starlink)  allows students who would not otherwise be able to participate due to a lack of infrastructure (or the destruction thereof). Said Brodsky:

“The children continue connecting to the classes from bomb shelters and train stations. They come despite blackouts and air raids. We see that they really need these classes, like a vitamin for growth. And we learn from them, too. We learn how to stay courageous and find opportunities even in the worst situations. For example, during winter blackouts, when entire cities stayed without power, some students noticed the stars were really bright. ‘If only we had a telescope,’ they said, ‘we could use the blackout times to study the sky.’ So, another colleague of ours, Mike Simmons, the founder of Astronomy for Equity, is currently crowdfunding for telescopes for these children.”

Earthlings Hub offers psychological webinars for parents. Credit: Earthlings Hub.

For the students, the structure and nature of the classes provide a welcome escape from the horrors of war, allowing them to engage with people in other countries and establish connections that could last a lifetime. “Space science and multidisciplinary classes that we teach help children to disengage from the harsh situation they are in, reduce anxiety, help to connect with like-minded peers, and actually serve as a lifeline in some traumatic situations,” said Brodsky. “This fascinating science helps the children not only remain engaged in learning but nurtures their dreams and fosters hope for a brighter future.”

Rather than teaching a standard curriculum, Earthlings Hub focuses on the big questions in astronomy, astrobiology, and other multidisciplinary fields of study. Among them are the mysteries of how the Universe began, what the Solar System looks like, how (and when) life emerged on Earth, and where it could also exist beyond our planet. The approach involves adopting a holistic outlook and considering how addressing the big questions in science and nature relate to other aspects of life and existence. As Brodsky indicated, it also fosters a sense of how everything and everyone are connected:

“Multidisciplinary classes, such as astrobiology, enable children of various interests to stay engaged and work together on the open questions of space and life that capture the imagination and bring people together. By discussing complex, profound questions of nature, we help children feel like a part of the scientific community, find caring and knowledgeable mentors, and keep wondering and thinking.”

The classes are instructed in the two languages of Ukraine (Ukrainian and Russian), as well as English, and are divided into three major projects. They include “Education Beyond The Textbook,” where students of middle school age are provided with multidisciplinary interactive science classes taught by educators and scientists from the USA, Europe, and Ukraine. Another project is “Science as a Career,” where children are able to interact with active researchers and attend daily “Ask a Scientist” sessions and weekly science lectures.

Earthlings Hub also provides weekly educational and psychological consulting to parents and caregivers through their “Education at the Time of War” project. These weekly webinars are led by esteemed educators and psychologists trained in children’s psychology, education in emergency situations, and trauma counseling. Through valuable insights, practical strategies, and expert advice, this project aims to empower parents and caregivers to navigate the complexities of their situations and support their children’s education and well-being.

Looking to the future, Brodsky and her colleagues foresee applications for this educational model beyond offering training and support to children and families in a time of war. One of the greatest threats posed by Climate Change is the way it could lead to millions of displaced people worldwide. With families forced to become “climate refugees,” education and outreach that are not restricted by borders or distance could become far more commonplace. As Brodsky summarized:

“We have found out that talking about fascinating multidisciplinary sciences with youngsters helps them to stay interested in learning, reduces anxiety, and helps them to dream and stay connected with people with shared interests. We definitely see this project as having tremendous potential in other situations, such as helping children affected by natural disasters and climate change.”

By encouraging children to look up at the sky and ponder the great mysteries of the Universe, Brodsky and her colleagues are doing far more than delivering educational services. They are also helping to keep hope and a sense of wonder alive for children and families displaced by the war and those still in the midst of it. To quote Rachel Carson, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the Universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Through their efforts, Earthlings Hub and its dedicated volunteers are addressing another all-too-common casualty of war: innocence, aspiration, and the dream of a brighter future. 

Further Reading: Earthlings Hub

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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