In a Phnom Penh hall, the planets of our solar system are suspended, each one represented by an accurately coloured balloon.
This is the centerpiece of the Astronomy and Science Corner, which Yin Soriya plans to equip for interactive learning. Students will be able to visit for free, to inspire a love for this subject in the younger Cambodian generation.
With a passion for astronomy and science since childhood, Soriya has always been fascinated by information about the universe and dreamt of creating a space education room in Cambodia.
“I have loved space since I was a child, but I did not have the opportunity to interact with the equipment needed to explore it,” said the professor of tourism and hospitality management, environmental science and development at the American University of Phnom Penh.
He admitted: “I do not have training in the field of astronomy, but I am passionate. I have knowledge of research and own a business in a related field, selling telescopes. The American University of Phnom Penh trusts that I have the ability to teach the subject.”
After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Education and a Master’s in Tourism Development from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, he won a scholarship to research his PhD in Natural Resources Science & Management from the University of Minnesota and a Postdoc certificate in Urban Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.
It was his experiences at the prestigious institute of technology that inspired him to create a centre that will instill knowledge of the universe and science to the next generation.
“When I arrived at MIT and saw their astronomy department and observatory, I was inspired,” he told The Post.
“When I returned to Cambodia, I intended to try to replicate what I had seen, so it would encourage children to hear new ideas and views and gain a broader understanding of science,” he said.
The professor wants children in his home country to be interested in science, although he noted that the topics of space and astronomy are rarely mentioned in Cambodia.
“I see that there are gaps in those fields and I want to fix them. I want some children, in both elementary and high school, to enjoy studying science,” said Soriya.
Although Cambodia has not yet produced any astronauts, in 2020, a Cambodian-American woman was a systems engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and worked on the Perseverance rover before it landed on Mars.
In January, a group of five Cambodian and foreign photographers with the same interest in extraterrestrial objects held the first astronomical photo exhibition in Phnom Penh. The exhibition featured images of planets in the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the C27 nebula 5,000 light-years from Earth, beyond what the naked eye can see.
The professor, who specialises in the telescope industry, said that the 40sq m astronomy and science showroom is located on Street 1003 near the Home Design Village shopping mall.
“We are located on the road to Macro Market, just south of the Mong Reththy traffic lights. The hall is 4 metres wide and 10 long – about the size of a classroom. It can accommodate about 30 children,” he said.
He explained that the space has a telescope for students to look at objects in space and plenty of other hands-on learning opportunities. The hall features realistic posters of space, and a diorama of the planets made with balloons. Educational and entertainment activities will be provided with pictures to colour, drawings and many more games.
“Our first goal is to let the students see and understand what they are looking at. Then there will be inter-active elements. This will involve them more and more in science,” he added.
He believes that in order for children to enjoy science, it is necessary to have the help of new and interesting things to ‘distract’ them from playing games and watching TikTok.
“Most children play a lot of games. If we encourage them to create things that are associated with space, it could make them fall in love with the subject – and it’s great for their imagination,” he said.
Despite spending his own money to set the exhibit up, Soriya says there will be no charge for students and those interested in space.
“We have begun with minimum resources. I spent about $10,000 to buy illustrations and simple tools. If there is a lot of interest in the future, we may need to attract a sponsor,” he added.
“I have established the astronomy and science corner, free of charge, just for kids to watch and learn,” said the professor, who often spends his free time making educational science videos. .
“I have a telescope shop which also sells binoculars. If students visit with their parents, perhaps they will make purchases from my store,” he added.
He proposes to open every Saturday and Sunday, while students are not at school. Soriya hopes they will visit and take one or two hours to immerse themselves in the science of astronomy.
He intends to attract students from 10 to 18 years of age from private schools, for lessons on science and space.
“I think that when students learn about astronomy in school, they generally do not get a chance for any practical study. I set up the astronomy and science corner to help science teachers from other schools, too. They can bring their students to visit. Our goal is to make it look like a small space museum,” he added.
He has not yet set a specific opening date for the centre.
“Maybe during September, when students return for the new school year,” he said.