Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Final thank you, and sorry for the delay (aka QR5)

It's mid-November. I know that. I know that I left my blog hanging without a final closing post for these past three months. I've been processing my travels, adjusting to living back in the Washington, D.C. area, and getting started on a new life filled with astronomy education.  I wish I had a better reason why I haven't written until now, but in all honesty, I've just put it off. Today, however, I am finally putting this blog to rest. I added three other much-delayed posts today -- a full interview with Team India of the IOAA, my Watson final report, and a video project I worked on the second half of the year -- so feel free to check them out.

Since coming home, I've gone on some small adventures, like the final Watson conference in Amherst, MA and a 350-mile bike-trip from D.C. to Pittsburgh with some fellow Watson Fellows. I'm living back in my home-town, and exploring parts of nearby D.C. that I've never appreciated before. It feels good to nest and settle, and I'm surprised that I haven't gotten that urge to uproot like I did periodically during my travels.

I'm getting involved in astronomy and science education in the area, too. I'm tutoring physics and math, teaching Lego Robotics and Engineering to young kids in an afterschool program called The Great Adventure Lab, and volunteering at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Last week I visited my old high school and talked with the astronomy classes about my journeys before accompanying them to the local planetarium. It's like I said in my QR4 post, which I just uploaded today:

"This year, I’ve learned that through and through, my project is me. By which I mean that what I care about, what my life’s direction is, is based in the themes I explored this year.  I love astronomy. I love that it can be a tool to exercise our brain to stretch any boundary that we find limiting. I love that it’s something that everyone can experience deeply, regardless of nationality, age or gender, because as human beings, we are inevitably affected by the sun, the moon, the seasons, and have undoubtedly asked ourselves the question, “What’s out there?” I love that it’s both a science we can know with some amount of certainty, and also a bottomless mystery, so our imaginations will never be satisfied. And I love that children posses the ability to know all of this with the clarity, enthusiasm and elegance that any adult could ever hope to. "

So I'm trying to stay true to that. 

Thank you to everyone who followed my travels and supported this journey. Your insights and perspective guided me when I felt stuck, and you helped to make this year memorable and meaningful. 

Clear skies,

Me, as the Hubble Space Telescope, for Halloween 2013

One Second Per Day, February 15 - August 8, 2013

This is a project I did semi-secretly the second half of my year. It's based on this TED talk by Cesar Kuriyama.

From February 15 - August 8, 2013, I took a one second video every day. I tried to capture beautiful places, close friends, and events from each day. I wanted to be able to watch this video 10 years from now and still have that one second trigger an entire memory from each day. After I wrote my second quarterly report, I became increasingly aware that I had to treasure this adventure. Capturing a moment every day reminded me to take advantage of the gift of the Watson and the people and places that made the year so magical.


QR4 / Final Report

The Watson Fellowship is phenomenal since, by definition, it is a "non-academic" fellowship. You don't need to produce results, conduct formal surveys or come to any sweeping conclusions about what you explored in the year. They do ask for a final "long letter home" similar to the other quarterly reports I've posted here. Below is most of that report, although some has been cut out to stay concise. 

Dear Watson HQ,

Here we go – the final report. I just read over all my previous quarterly reports and your responses and tried to absorb the emotions from each of the various stages of travel. The small achievements, the insights, the moments of feeling stuck, the human beings and situations placed in my path that gave my year direction and meaning, for better or worse. What a gift it’s been!

I know that I’ve said it a million times, but I say sincerely and deeply – thank you. This journey has solidified many things I know about about myself and the world, mostly that those things are never solid at all. Without your belief in me and without your support throughout the year, it just wouldn’t have been possible. So without further ado…

Report from the Fourth Quarter:

I spent the majority of my fourth quarter in New Zealand, a country where I felt inspired by the resources of the education system and positively overwhelmed by the hospitality of the astronomy community. My main reason for visiting New Zealand was to explore the intersection between a high-achieving science education and traditional Maori cultural beliefs about the Universe.

As I noted in my Q3 report, I felt that I “hit the ground running” in Christchurch because of the openness and enthusiasm from people committed to making my project come to life. This felt so refreshing after moments in the year that felt stagnant, that during my three months in New Zealand, I sometimes had to re-focus my vision and goals towards what I wanted from my project, as opposed to what others wanted from me.

The astronomy community in New Zealand is comprised mostly of hobby or “amateur” astronomers... Their passion and knowledge for the subject is striking, especially as many of them are self-taught. They seemed equally fascinated with me, since as a young woman interested in astronomy, I struck them as a bit of an anomaly. They invited me to their society meetings, their clubhouses and to see their personal telescopes. They shared their contacts across the country with me and gave endless suggestions for whom I should visit next.

While I continued to work with these communities throughout my stay in New Zealand, I pushed myself to enter astronomical spaces that are specifically designed for children, as well as spaces that emphasize Maori culture. The best moments happened when these places effortlessly overlapped. Two of New Zealand’s major astronomy education centers, Carter Observatory in Wellington and Stardome Observatory and Planetarium in Auckland, showcased exhibits and events about Maori and Pasifika astronomy. At Carter, for example, there is an exhibit that describes the Big Bang in parallel with the Maori creation story.

It was refreshing to see “scientific” astronomy working alongside “cultural” astronomy and even more invigorating to see that this was an approach that helped children engage with our Universe on multiple levels. It makes sense to kids that there are many stories that explain our Universe, and this plurality of ideas allows for their imaginations to construct new stories. Making things up and imagining different realities is really at the heart of why I love and connect so much with astronomy after all. The creativity to push an idea to something previously unimaginable – that’s what science is at its core.

The theme of my time in New Zealand starting in about mid-May was Matariki, the Maori New Year and also the Maori name for the Pleiades star cluster. I found it fascinating that there were many different explanations for what Matariki is and how the holiday is celebrated. The telling and re-telling of a story across many generations by many different people with different histories will inevitably change the details and the perspective of that story. There is a lot of debate and sometimes anger at how people teach Matariki incorrectly and how children hear a washed out Euro-centric version, which does injustice to an already oppressed culture. Regardless of the variations, however, I heard some dialogue about Matariki in almost every classroom, observatory and planetarium I visited from late May to early July. And without a doubt, I loved that every child I spoke with instantly recognized the bluish star cluster as a part of their national history and therefore as a part of themselves.

In New Zealand, I was also greatly inspired by schools and how they function. In other times during my Watson year, the schools I visited were downright depressing with a dearth of educational and human resources to create effective learning spaces. My mother, who is a teacher, always says that the condition of a school sends a message to students immediately about their self-worth in the eyes of their community and society. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but notice that New Zealand was doing a fairly good job sending a positive message to its children. Victory Primary School in the town of Nelson was doing an especially beautiful job: the school infrastructure, and also the stable support from educators and the intentional, inclusive community-based school philosophy made Victory my favorite school from the whole year. For a fairly diverse community, too, it was beautiful to see a plurality of needs being met and cared for.

But don’t worry, Watson folks! My time in New Zealand was well balanced in terms of achieving project goals, challenging myself and having some fun. New Zealand’s scenery is unbelievably stunning, and I took time to explore the country’s landscapes. Additionally, I improved my skills in bikram yoga, chocolate-chip-oat-espresso-cookie-making, hitchhiking, night photography, express-friendship and icey-water-jumps.

By mid-July, it was time to pack up and go for one final adventure. My plans for the last chunk of my year changed so many times due to shifting contacts and feasibility, but I can happily report that going to Greece for my final 3.5 weeks was absolutely the right decision. After my contact in Indonesia gave me the final “this isn’t a good time” message, I was feeling lost and unsure of what to do next. Then I met a teacher in New Zealand who was preparing a team of students for the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics, to take place in Volos, Greece, July 29 – August 5, and then everything clicked into place.

After a week or so exploring Athens and a few Greek islands, I arrived at the Olympiad geared up and ready for one last astronomy education adventure. It was the perfect way to end my year. These kids were an inspiration. They trained, raised funds, and took time away from school to travel for the sole purpose of sitting through astronomy examinations and being in community with other young astronomers.

On top of all of this, many of them are exceptionally self-aware and articulate. While I may not consider them “children” really, since they were between 14 and 18 years old, they are just on the cusp of adulthood, with all of their childhood still fresh in their memories and all of the anticipation for what’s to come still exciting and unclear.

I was technically a journalist for the event, which allowed me the time to interview teams individually. Some of them said things that will stay with me forever. Most memorably, one of the participants from India, in explaining why he loves astronomy, said:

“In [some sciences] you create an experiment. You... judge the outcomes and make predictions. But in astronomy the experiment is always going on. You cannot change anything. You just have to observe whatever it is that nature provides you with.

Their love for astronomy was unflappable. So, inevitably, we bonded. The best times were at night, when regardless of how late it was, how exhausted they were, how long they’d sat in exams that day, all they wanted to do was look up at the stars in the dark mountain skies. We pointed out constellations, took photos, counted shooting stars, told stories and basked under the Milky Way.

Building relationships with these students from all over the world, who were so enamored with astronomy, gave my year a new level of meaning and perspective. After moments during the year when I contemplated the possibility that maybe kids don’t care about astronomy and maybe they don’t need to, it was amazing to bond with young people who had found as much meaning in astronomy as I have. It reinforced that what I’m doing does have value and is the right avenue for me as I move into my next stage of life. 

Thoughts on the year and beyond:

When I reflect on the year as a whole, to be honest, it blurs in my memory. This has been the scariest thing about being home. Not that the transition has been difficult, but that it’s been too easy. Did the last 12 months really just happen? Or do my memories of people and places belong to someone else, like something seen on TV or read in a good travel magazine? Even when I watch my “One Second Per Day” video that I showed at the conference or read my journals, it goes by too fast.

Instead I try to focus on isolated events, stories, lessons and people. When I focus on those things specifically, the memory spreads through me with an amount of certainty and authenticity that I recognize as truth. These are the stories I find myself telling and re-telling, because they were the most profound and taught me the lessons that I needed most in a moment. Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re not often project related.

There are many stories that I’m still processing and many relationships and conversations that have yet to be unpacked. Each teaches me how I interact with people in the world, and how the world’s people interact with each other.

This year, I’ve learned that through and through, my project is me. By which I mean that what I care about, what my life’s direction is, is based in the themes I explored this year.  I love astronomy. I love that it can be a tool to exercise our brain to stretch any boundary that we find limiting. I love that it’s something that everyone can experience deeply, regardless of nationality, age or gender, because as human beings, we are inevitably affected by the sun, the moon, the seasons, and have undoubtedly asked ourselves the question, “What’s out there?” I love that it’s both a science we can know with some amount of certainty, and also a bottomless mystery, so our imaginations will never be satisfied. And I love that children posses the ability to know all of this with the clarity, enthusiasm and elegance that any adult could ever hope to. 

When I share this love, especially when I speak it out loud, I’m at my most complete, my most joyful. Even in my four minutes at the Watson conference, doing the same “tour of the Universe” I did with students all year, I felt my whole person coming alive. One thing that stuck with me from those magical three days at the conference was just this – that instead of worrying about how we should operate in the world, my fellow fellows are doing things that make them joyful, and in spreading that joy, that’s what’s making the world a better place.

I just hope that I won’t forget that feeling or lose the momentum from these past adventures. But armed with a year full of reinforcing experience, and a global network of mentors and friends, I doubt that I will.

Clear skies and eternal gratitude,

IOAA Full Interview with Team India

Here, finally, is my full interview at the IOAA with the Indian team (Arindam Bhattacharya, 16, Ashutosh Satyajit Marwah, 18, Ayush Kumar, 16, Sandesh Kalantre, 17, and Sheshansh Agrawal, 16). This is long overdue, but the interview was so moving and the students were so articulate, I had to keep my promise to post it. I've underlined some especially memorable quotes.

* * * * * * *

The selection process to qualify to represent India in the IOAA is quite an intense one. Could you describe it?
Ayush: There are three stages. In the first, 15,000 students take a multiple choice exam. Then it's narrowed to 300 for a second exam. In the third round, 35 students are invited to a 20-day camp. 

Wow. What is that camp like? It sounds like Astrophysics boot-camp.
Ayush: To be honest, the camp is very rigorous. We get very little sleep during the camp. They teach us whatever they test us on. Based on how we preform on the test, that’s how they select the [final] team.

That's a lot of extra work and time outside of school to enter in the IOAA. What motivated you to go through with it?
Arindam: Firstly, I’d like to mention that the camp is not just an academic camp. There is a fun element to it. We have late-night sessions of sky observations where people who don’t have any first-time information about telescopes get to learn to use it. And we get to observe the actual objects that we usually see in picture-books or encyclopedias. But we also play a lot of games. It’s a chance to meet new people -- to meet like-minded people -- from around the country. We also get to learn from some of the best professors of astronomy in India. 

Sandesh: The thing about camp is that we also have past national medalists that help to teach during the camp. They help to make the camp more fun. They are co-facilitators of the camp and help to design the papers and also play games with us. So the camp is not just an academic experience but also a fun one.

Ayush: Who doesn’t want a 20-day vacation? It’s just like a vacation.

Sure, but some people see vacation as sleeping in and laying on a beach. Not doing hardcore astrophysics.

Ayush: We’re not just some people, are we?

Fair enough. How long have you been interested in astronomy? What got you interested?

Ashutosh: Six months. That was when I was selected for the second round. I was more interested in physics and maths and that’s why I got selected. Physics and maths has brought me here. 

Sheshansh: Astronomy comes in bits and pieces in a child’s life when parents of a child tell him the mythology of the stars. A child becomes curious when they wonder how something in the sky can be associated with myths. That’s a minor part of how I got into astronomy. But the major part was last year when I got selected for the third stage of the selection camp. When the teachers sent me the preparation CD and textbooks, I started reading them, and there was something attractive in them. It’s all about imagination. That’s the best part of it that’s in astronomy and nowhere else.

Arindam: Astronomy as a subject is not taught in Indian schools. I originally got interested in the subject when I got selected for the astronomy camp in India. The best part of astronomy that appeals to be is that the main theme is unification. Astronomy is one of those subjects that connects the celestial to the terrestrial.

Sandesh: The thing I love about astronomy is observation. When I was small, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I first saw through a telescope Saturn’s rings. That was the moment I thought that I should take astronomy because you know there are so many beautiful objects in the sky, and we miss them without a telescope. Astronomy is a medium which provides me that facility, so I love it.

Ayush: The first thing is that I’ve loved science since I was a kid -- that’s not the question. How I got into astronomy -- In physics you have an experiment. You say how can I do this, let’s see what happens, how can I judge the outcomes and make predictions. But in astronomy the experiment is always going on. You cannot change anything. You just have to observe whatever it is that nature provides you with. The most interesting thing is that all of the information you have is just a ray of light. A ray of light enables you to know the atmosphere of a planet thousands of light-years away from you as well as we know the atmosphere of our own planet. That’s what amazes me. Just a little bit of data and you can get a lot of information.

What resources are available to learn astronomy? Do you have clubs in your schools? Do any of you have access to telescopes?

Sheshansh: As far as studying astronomy goes, last year I bought a telescope -- a Newtonian reflector telescope -- and I use it to observe the sky. As far as books and knowledge is concerned, I guess the internet is huge enough.

What do you think of this years Olympiad so far? (Four of the five students had participated in previous Olympiads.)

Ayush: We’ll see what happens. There are a lot of fun people around. There are some people who study all day, but also people who like to have fun.

Ashutosh: Good things: We got to know a lot of new people. Also the beach is excellent. Volos is a great city, and the city looks great from Mount Pelion...

I would still like to hear more about your motivation. Where I come from, it takes a lot to motivate students academically, especially if extra time outside of school is needed. Where does your drive for astronomy come from? 

Ayush: Sportsmanship. Why does a sportsman live? I’ve never felt that there’s any real difference between an academic Olympian and an athletic one. It’s the same feeling. In football, you have struck for the goal and there’s this moment where you are waiting while the ball is in the air, and you don’t know if it will go inside or outside or if the goalkeeper will stop it, and there is this thrill. There is the same thrill here. You’ve written an exam, you’re waiting for the results. It’s exciting. And for any sport you need to prepare a lot. You sweat, the hard work is there... So what drives us? The game, the sportsmanship.

Ashutosh: What Ayush wants to say is that all of this, all of the preparation, it’s worth it. It’s completely worth it. It’s a chance to represent India. It’s a great thing. We get to represent our country. We have blazers that say “India” on them, which is pretty cool, and yes, I love solving new problems. Sometimes we get to make new problems before our tests so we can test each other. It’s just fun to solve problems. I’d say the same for [my team].

Ayush: It’s like going on an adventure. That’s what it is for me. We don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t know what obstacles we will face. We’re just out here, with all the preparation you can possibly have, and it’s pretty exciting. We're living these 7 days to the fullest.

What would you say to students your age who aren't motivated to learn?

Ashutosh: I guess everyone should learn what they like. That’s what we’re doing. We like astronomy and physics, so that’s what we’re doing. Everyone likes something at some stage in their life, that’s what they should do. Set goals, work towards them, and achieve them.

What would you say to a student who is passionate about something but feels stuck?

Ashutosh: I have no background in astronomy. I just liked it. I had this book that my father bought for me with all of the cool Hubble photos of the galaxies and nebulae. If I can do this, anyone can do this. The guy you’re talking about? That’s me. Just do it, don’t think about it. Just do it and see what the result is... I had no supportive teachers before I went to the astronomy camp. You just need to do what you love.

Arindam: Abstract concepts always begin from very simple things, simple observations. So someone who is interested in astronomy but doesn’t have the resources around could just try making simple observations such as recording the time of sunset everyday. Finding out moonrise/moon-set. Simple things like this can make way for abstract theories and concepts later on. And if you’re really motivated to do something, you will always find a resource that can help you. 

Ayush: Someone famous, I can’t remember who, once said something like, ‘Nothing can help you -- genius will not, there are a lot of genius people sitting around not achieving, intellect will not, there are a lot of intelligent derelicts amongst us, talent will not, unrewarded talent is leads to self-disapproval. But determination and perseverance is omnipotent.’ So everyone has problems, and it’s unfortunate if there are people without resources. But let’s just do what we can do and what we can do best is to keep trying.

Thank you guys for sharing your insights! Any final thoughts?

Ashutosh: “I’ll just say it. This Olympiad has been LEGEND -- and I hope none of you are lactose intolerant because the second half of the word is -- DAIRY. LEGENDARY.

Team Inida at the IOAA Opening Ceremony, July 27, 2013

Sunday, August 4, 2013

IOAA Student Reflections on Astronomy

This is an article I wrote for the fourth newsletter of the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Volos, Greece. Once the exams finished, I wanted to focus on what motivates these students and what they find fascinating about astronomy. Some of their responses were exceptionally articulate and moving and have caused me to re-examine my own appreciation and passion for astronomy.
* * * * *

We are the Universe: Student Reflections on Astronomy

​After several days of scheduling issues and weather-related delays, the participants of the IOAA2013 finally completed all four categories of examinations: theoretical, data analysis, observational and team competition. While the tests provided some challenges and required patience and perseverance from everyone involved, the motivation to do well and the love of astronomy kept the students focused. 

​“I’ve never felt that there’s any real difference between an academic olympian and an athletic one,” says Indian team member Ayush Kumar, 16. “You get the same feeling. In football, you have struck for the goal and there’s this moment where you are waiting while the ball is in the air... and there is this thrill. There is the same thrill here. [We’ve] written an exam, and [we’re] waiting for the results.”

​Every student at the IOAA is in Volos because of this shared passion for astronomy. While everyone has a different story as to how they began learning astronomy, their love of the science is shared. Some students, like Allan dos Santos Costa, 15, from Brazil, have been interested in the subject for many years.  “Since I was a kid I enjoyed astronomy,” he says. “And when I learned physics, it was kind of a revolution [for me].

​Sandesh Kalantre, 17, from India, also found astronomy as a child. He says, “When I was small, maybe seven or eight-years-old, I first saw through a telescope Saturn’s rings. That was the moment I thought that I should learn astronomy because there are so many beautiful objects in the sky, and we miss them without a telescope.”

​Meanwhile, others such as Brian Brzycki, 17, from the United States found astronomy later in life. "I didn't care about astronomy until my [second year of high school] when I tried out for my school's Science Olympiad astronomy team,” he says. “Then that whole year, I learned more and more."

​Regardless of when each student originally became interested in astronomy, the combination of scientific problem-solving and philosophical wonder of our Universe is what inspires the participants to learn astrophysics at a high level. "The best part of astronomy [for me] is that the main theme is unification," says Arindam Bhattacharya, 16, from India. "Astronomy is one of the only subjects that connects the celestial to the terrestrial.

​For Ayush, the power of astronomy lies in the unpredictable and uncontrollable facets of the science. He says, "In physics you create an experiment. You... judge the outcomes and make predictions. But in astronomy the experiment is always going on. You cannot change anything. You just have to observe whatever it is that nature provides you with."

​Additionally, he is fascinated by problem-solving methods used by astronomers. "All of the information you have is just a ray of light,” he notes. “That ray of light enables you to know the atmosphere of a planet thousands of light-years away... That’s what amazes me: Just a little bit of data and you can get a lot of information.”

​Ionna Kalogeropoulou, 17, from Greece appreciates the more humanistic aspects of astronomy and says, “I like that as people we can understand and learn about something so big.  This makes us important. Our ability to understand something so vast, even though we're small... is amazing." 

​Adds Ionna’s Greek teammate Fotios Ionnis Giasemis, 16, “We are the Universe.”

​In the days to come, the Olympiad will wind down and the participants will have more free time to socialize and enjoy Greece. While the exams are officially over, and the astronomical aspects of the Olympiad are technically behind them, undoubtedly the participants will continue share their passion for understanding, observing and appreciating our Universe.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

IOAA Full Interview with Team New Zealand

This is the full interview I had with the New Zealand team (Navodhi Delpachitra, 17, Connor Hale, 17, Darina Khun, 18, and Daniel Yska, 17) at the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Volos, Greece. I got to know the team a little while I was in Wellington in May, but this week it has been wonderful to get to know them more. I've been so impressed by their positivity, commitment, and sense of humor this week as they've navigated the ups and downs of the Olympiad. In this interview, they gave some really interesting insights on astronomy, educational motivation and the benefits of learning in community. I've underlined the quotes that I found especially interesting.

How did you become involved in the Olympiad? What was the process for you to be here?
Connor: It was very strenuous and horrible ordealWell, Mr. Monigatti came up to me and said, 'Would you like to go to Greece?' so I said, 'Yes.' And he asked if I could think of any others who might want to go, and I suggested these three. 
[This is a great example of Connor's sarcastic sense of humor. Chris Monigatti is a teacher at Connor's school, Tawa College. He's one of the coaches of the team and hosts observing nights for students every week. I met Chris personally while I was in Wellington, and mention my visit to Tawa more in "New Zealand Updates, pt II.]

How did you know them ahead of time, because you don't go to the same school, right?
Connor: They'd been going along to Wellington Astronomical Society (WAS) meetings, 
except for Darina, who I knew from Spcae Camp.
[The Royal Society of New Zealand funded Connor and Darina to go to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama last year.]

And how long had you been going to WAS meetings?
Connor: About six months or so.
Navodhi: On and off for about two years. My parents are really interested as well. We've all been pretty interested for a long time, but we hadn't found a way to learn more about it. Then one of my science teachers said to call Chris [Monigatti], since he has observing nights every Friday. So I started going to those, and then I started going to the WAS meetings as well.
Daniel: I'd just been interested in astronomy for a long time and we did a bit in science when I was 14, but it was very brief and I wanted to learn more, so the next year I just searched 'Wellington Astronomy' and then I found the society, and it was close to where I live, so I just started going along to those meetings, and I got really interested in that. Then I found out about the Friday night meetings at Tawa [College] with Mr Monigatti.
[In another, informal interview, Daniel told a story of picking up Richard Hall's book How to Gaze at the Southern Stars while he was babysitting. Richard created the Stonehenge in NZ, which I visited in my NZ Updates pt II post.] 

What so far has been the best thing about the Olympiad?
Navodhi: I'd say just talking to all the other teams. Before we came here, I really didn't know what to expect. I thought maybe they'd be really uptight, but everyone has been so friendly and really honest, and I really enjoy talking to them. 
Connor: Getting to see Athens and Volos has been really cool.
Darina: Maybe knowing that everyone else is just as interested in astronomy as you. That's why we're all here.
Navodhi: Yeah, in NZ people aren't as interested, but you never know until you take the steps to learn more. And here, you see the people who really have gotten into it. It's just amazing.
Daniel: Yeah, it's really cool here, meeting people who are just so intelligent and so interesting and so friendly as well. It's so easy to think of these people as esoteric or different. But getting to know them has been really exciting and interesting. 

To each of you, what is the quality or the sub-field of astronomy that you find most interesting? 
Connor: Probably Observational. Getting out there and seeing the stars.
Darina: I mean, we're tiny. Seeing the stars you kind of feel like you're a little speck. Knowing that we're the small ones... it's amazing.
Navodhi: Yeah, it was such an amazing thing to see where the Earth was in our Solar System and where the Sun is, and how everything goes around it. It's crazy to learn how small we are... Something I also really like is probably the mystery of it. I mean, that's more philosophical, but I also really like the physics and how it can be applied.

Why do you think they have the IOAA every year? What's the purpose?
Daniel: I think partially to have the international standard test to be able to say, 'Yes, I am the best in the world,' but further than that, I think it's just really important to get like-minds together to get people excited and get people interested. It is an amazing science. When I told people I was going to the IOAA, they were all so supportive. Even friends at school who didn't like the science that was taught in schools would say, 'Oh, I love watching the stars, or I love watching astronomy programs on TV.' Telling them that there are things you can do to get involved to get this far is really cool.
Darina: I think this is a great way to promote astronomy as well. Because it is such a great science, and more people should get involved. 

So this is something I've actually been trying to understand all year. When we talk about astronomy, no one is ever bored or unimpressed. There's something about the subject that pulls on everyone. Why do you think that is? What do you think it is about astronomy that can appeal to anybody?
Daniel: I think that it's the wonder of it. And the perspective of it. To learn about how small and insignificant we are and how special that makes us. It's like Carl Sagan said, 'We are the Universe looking back at itself.' I think anyone can get interested in that. And all of the beautiful pictures of galaxies and all of that is so accessible and exciting.
Darina: It's also because maybe they don't know a lot about it. It keeps the curiosity going.

OK, but not that many people know very much about organic chemistry, but that doesn't mean they're going to want to learn more. So what is it about astronomy? [Sorry Organic Chemists...]
Connor: I think because a lot of astronomy can be explained simply, so people can understand big ideas and appreciate it.
Darina: And everyone can see the stars. 
Navodhi: We're part of it, you know? Being on Earth means that we have a permanent link to the Universe. It's difficult to ignore. Everyone at some point in their life can appreciate it. Whether you look outside at the stars or whether  you realize that physics can be applied to explain nature. But maybe it's so big and so vast that people might not want to delve in and take the first step to learn more. I know that I had that for a while. I was satisfied just to look up, but then I was worried about how much there is to it. But once you take that first step to get in, it's so fascinating.
Daniel: And then the mystery becomes exciting.

So what advice would you give to someone who's amazed by astronomy,  but is scared to delve in?
Navodhi: Join a group. Even if you have to start one yourself, like Darina did at her school, find other people who have the same interests, who have the same questions. Use the people around you who share the passion, too.
Darina: Don't quit and keep going.

How did you start the group at your school, Darina?
Darina:  It took such a long time, but loads of people were interested, so it was possible.
How many students are there? What do you do?
Darina: About ten, so not a lot, but the people who are in the group are really interested. We meet once a week at lunchtime, and we just talk about astronomy and usually take turns presenting on a different topic each week. And we also go to the observatory at the college next door.
And did you start it yourself, or did you have a teacher or member of the faculty also pushing for the club? 
Darina: It's just student-driven. There's a teacher for support, but he gives all the power to us.

So this is another major question I have. Where do you think self- motivation comes from? In this age where more and more students are apathetic about school, how do you cultivate a drive for learning? As students who are clearly self-motivated, maybe you can shed some light on this.
Daniel: I think it's about wanting to challenge yourself.
Darina: And not only that, but it's something you love. You're always going to push at something you love. 
Navodhi: I've never had to think about that question. I always give all of my subjects my best. I don't ever say, 'I don't like this so I won't try.' Because the truth is that underneath it, not understanding is something people find uncomfortable. So in trying to understand something, you're halfway there...  I just feel so grateful to be here, I wouldn't want to waste the chance to succeed. Sure, you might think, 'It's Greece, let's just enjoy Greece,' but part of the Olympiad is yes, we're in Greece, but it's about astronomy. And you want to do it justice. It's not enough to have passion. People can be passionate about something, but you want to succeed. There's always more you can do, more you can learn. 

So you're all in Year 13, [the final year of high school in NZ] what are your plans after graduation? 
Darina: All of us are thinking about going to Uni...
Daniel: Who would have thought, right? [Laughter] I'm planning on doing engineering, I think. Taking from the science and maths, but in New Zealand especially, I think it's the most widely accepted science-related field. There are enough stable jobs, which is a little sad, I think, to choose by what we feel is the right choice, but it's practical. And it's a wide field, so maybe I can get into satellite design or aeronautic engineering to relate to astronomy. 
Connor: I want to do electrical engineering. So again, it's the practical side of science and it can lead to a lot of different jobs. 
[Long pause, and some shrugs between Darina and Navodhi.]
It's OK to say you don't know yet.
Navodhi: It's not that I don't know. There are a lot of things I could do but somebody told me, that you can do many things, but you should do what you really like. You should do something you love, otherwise it won't last. I know at the moment I have so many interests and I want to find something, some niche that I love. That's hard to find these days when there are so many options. So I'm still holding out. I'm definitely interested in science, but I guess we'll see.
Daniel: Spoiled by choice. 
Navodhi:  exactly.
Darina: It's like what Daniel said -- we have to find a balance between what we love and finding a stable job. 

Any final thoughts ?
Darina: I just really hope they do this again next year and more people from New Zealand can have this chance. 
Daniel:  I think we all hope that this legacy can continue. Well, maybe not legacy, but that this can be a place for people to get excited about astronomy. That this was useful for something in NZ. 

I think that this is something you've definitely achieved, and I think you four have set the precedent for NZ's participation in events like this. As your unofficial guide/leader, it's been lovely getting to know you both in NZ and at the Olympiad. I'm looking forward to spending more time together this week!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


This is an article I wrote for the second newsletter of the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics, taking place now in Volos, Greece. Hopefully I'll be posting the articles I write for the newsletter here every couple of days, in addition to some full interviews I have with the kids participating in the Olympiad. I can't include everything in the articles, of course, but I will say that I'm having a blast here, and am so impressed by all of the participants. It's been a joy to be around kids who love astronomy and are so self-motivated to learn. 

* * * * *

Challenge, Play and Camaraderie for Participants in the First Days of IOAA2013

For the participants of the Seventh International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics, these first few days have been packed full of activity and excitement both in Chania and in Volos. 

For most of the participants, the most meaningful part of the Olympiad so far has been getting to know members of the other teams and making new friends. Guilherme Machado, 18, from Portugal, has found that the planned activities such as playing sports have been a great platform for getting to know other participants. “I really like playing football with the other teams,” says Guilherme. “Getting to know other cultures and talking with other people has been very interesting.” In addition to football, participants gathered on Monday morning to participate in a number of activities such as volleyball, hiking, camp games, and even traditional Greek folk dancing. During free time as well, participants and guides from different teams gather for card and board games, group study sessions and casual conversations.
Going on a group hike in the mountains above Volos
For many, these planned and informal activities have been great ways to transition to life in Greece and get into the spirit of the Olympiad.  “Before coming here, I really didn't know what to expect from the other teams,” says New Zealand team member Navodhi Delpachitra, 17. “Everyone has been so friendly and really honest, and I’ve really enjoyed talking with them.” This is the first time New Zealand has participated in the IOAA, and they hope that this year can set a precedent for their country.

“Knowing that everyone else is just as interested in astronomy as you is really great, and we've all learned a lot,” says New Zealand participant Darina Khun, 18. “I really hope they do this again next year and more people from New Zealand can have this opportunity.”
Greek folk dancing at the IOAA2013
“We knew we were here to take tests, but I don’t think we anticipated the union with all of the other countries,” says Claire Burch, 14, from team USA. This is also the first time the United States has participated in the IOAA. Claire adds, “You know, we really feel that we’re one planet here, all together.”

For some participants, this is not their first IOAA, although this year does provide something different from previous Olympiads. This is the third Olympiad for Slovakian participant Miroslav Gasparek, 17, who also attended the previous IOAA’s in Brazil and Poland. He says, “This year, compared with previous years, we get to be more in touch with local life. Our guides this year are amazing – it’s like we’re a family.” 

Matus Kulich, 18, Miroslav’s Slovakian teammate for the past three years, agrees that being in Greece provides something unique to the IOAA experience. “Greece is the country that the idea of the Olympiad originally comes from,” he says. “It’s been good to see this especially important historical point-of-view.”

Despite everyone’s past experiences and expectations, astronomy has certainly been the main focus. In the theoretical exam on Tuesday, every participant had the opportunity to show their knowledge and expertise in astronomy and astrophysics. Tuesday morning, the tension in the examination rooms was palpable, as participants awaited the questions. Savvas Soudeniotis, guide for South Korea, sensed this himself, even though he wasn't personally taking the exam. “Once the doors shut and the exam started, I felt their anxiety and agony, and hoped that everything went well,” he says. 
Getting familiar with a telescope used for the Observational exam
Once the exams were turned in, the students could relax a bit again, taking time to eat, explore Volos and enjoy each other’s company. Half of the participants and guides went to go bowling while the other half visited Volos’ archaeological museum.  

Now, as the students prepare for the next phase of the Olympiad, their eyes return to the stars. “I’m looking forward to the Observational Round,” says Singapore participant Wei Shen Oh, 17. “In Singapore, we don’t get to experience such great dark skies. Stargazing at such a high altitude with dark skies has been really good so far.”

Many of the participants like Wei Shen have been taking free time in the evenings to go out and stargaze together. Participants bring binoculars, cameras for astrophotography, star charts and laser pointers to explore the skies and explain what they know. Since everyone comes from different parts of the world with slightly different skies, they each have something unique to share. “We can all be students again,” says Wei Shen. “Since we all have the same interest, we can all learn a lot of things from each other.”
Participants stargazing in Chania, Greece during the IOAA2013

The guides, too, have had the opportunity to learn about astronomy through these informal stargazing sessions. “I never thought of astronomy as something interesting, maybe because I didn't learn about it in school,” says Savvas, who studies geology at the University of Athens. “It’s been a great experience learning astronomy, and I even now know how to recognize some constellations and find my way at night.” While most of the guides like Savvas are not astronomers nor have experience with previous Olympiads, they have fully embraced the international culture of the IOAA. Says Savvas, “I really love my team. I think they have learned a lot about Greek culture and tradition from me, and likewise I have learned a lot about South Korea.” 

As the IOAA2013 progresses, participants and their guides will continue to explore together, learn from one another and enjoy this truly unique opportunity.