Students with a Passion for Astronomy – the SWAPA scholarship scheme

SWAPA is a scheme which Professor John Hearnshaw first devised in 2014 as the incoming RASNZ president, whereby ten secondary school students who have achieved academic excellence and who have displayed a clear passion for astronomy are selected to participate in the annual RASNZ conference, normally in May each year.

A short competition is held annually in the early months of each year in which students from all New Zealand secondary schools are invited to write a short essay of up to 300 words, explaining why they would like to participate in the RASNZ conference.

For the first three years, a selection as a SWAPA student entailed waiving the student’s registration for the conference and giving them a free ticket for the conference banquet dinner. The scheme in these early years was funded by a benefaction to the Society by the late Graham Blow.

In Year Four of SWAPA (2018), thanks to a generous donation from RASNZ member Michael Snowden, the SWAPA scheme supported students’ travel, accommodation, registration and the banquet. It is anticipated that this level of support will now continue in perpetuity, thanks to Michael’s generous benefaction, which is administered by the University of Canterbury Foundation.

For the five RASNZ conferences 2015 to 2019 held in Tekapo, Napier, Dunedin, Christchurch and New Plymouth, a total of 50 outstanding young students have participated with SWAPA scholarships. Many have gone on to excel at university studying astronomy and astrophysics.

No conference was possible in 2020, so in 2021 a double cohort of SWAPA students has been selected to attend the Wellington conference. This includes nine students selected in 2020 and another ten selected in 2021 under the benefaction of Michael Snowden. The Wellington Astronomical Society will be supporting five more SWAPA students from the Wellington area making 24 in total.

In addition, from 2019 Astronz has started generously funding the conference participation of undergraduate university students as they no longer qualify for the SWAPA scheme and are not eligible for university funding which is limited to post graduate students. In 2021, university students from all New Zealand universities were invited to apply and the 5 with the most impressive credentials were awarded the Astronz Scholarship. Two additional university students studying astronomy were also provided the award for their role in supporting the SWAPA students at the 2021 Conference.

Therefore RASNZ expects at least 31 young astronomers at the Wellington centenary conference, which should make this year’s event one of the most exciting and youthful in the Society’s long history. Several of these will be giving short talks to showcase their enthusiasm for astronomy and explain how they became inspired by the subject and/or share something they have learnt to-date.