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. 

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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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Auckland, New Zealand

[Wrote this two weeks ago, but have been searching for a computer to finish this post and include pictures since then. Now finally posting in an internet cafe in Athens, Greece. Updates on Greece will have to wait for another time...]

July 15, 2013:
I've been in and around Auckland for the past three-four weeks as my final stop in New Zealand. There's been a ton going on, in astronomy education and otherwise, but it's been great to be busy and learning a lot.
Auckland skyline at sunset
Through Couch Surfing, I met a science teacher at St. Peter's College, a prestigious all-boys Catholic prep school. He happened to be teaching astronomy-related topics in class during my first week in Auckland and invited me to join those classes. The most interesting thing I observed was during a class that was piloting an iPad-in-the-classroom program where every student has their own iPad.

The class was learning about the seasons, and the students were given a list of questions to answer related to that topic. They were allowed to use any of the following resources to answer these questions: 1) Their textbook, which had a specific section on the topic, 2) the iPads, and 3) different lights and sports balls to represent the Sun, Earth and Moon. Initially, every child chose the iPad, and right away cut and paste the exact questions into Google. They then found the answers confusing, and either kept looking for good sites, or moved on to the other resources. I observed that the iPads were distracting, and actually did a very poor job as a research tool, unless directed to specific sites and resources by the teacher. Nonetheless, every student used it as their default tool. I've seen in New Zealand several times that iPads in the classroom are becoming a selling point to families to show that the school is technologically advanced and the students have better learning opportunities. But I'm still not sold that these kinds of tools actually enhance learning.

My main reason for coming to Auckland was to work with the Stardome Observatory, which is part astronomy museum, part planetarium and part actual observatory. During the weekdays, they have numerous school visits, and in the evenings, they have planetarium shows targeting specific age groups of children and adults alike.
Stardome Observatory
June and July have been focused on celebrating Matariki, the Maori New Year, and my first trip to Stardome was for a Matariki Dawn Festival. The public came out in the very early to spot the constellation Matariki (Pleiades) itself before sunrise, and then the morning was filled with talks, performances, planetarium shows, traditional kite-making, and activities for kids like face-painting and astronomy craft projects. I was thrilled to see an astronomy center working with the community to host a cultural festival. Science and culture/tradition/religion are often thought of as distinct, and I was pleased to see them coming together seamlessly.

Crafts and face-painting at Matariki celebration at the Stardome Observatory. I pitched in by doing a lot of face-painting too -- mostly shooting stars, rockets and aliens.
I spent the following week observing school groups at Stardome, most of which had requested information and shows about Matariki. A school visit to Stardome includes a pre-recorded Planetarium Show, a tour of the night sky in the Planetarium, time to look around the exhibits in the hall, and a classroom session where they can go more in depth about the topic covered inside the Planetarium. This holistic and varied approach engages with students and educators on multiple levels so that kids can take away both the cool and fun experience of being inside a planetarium while still leaving with some scientific information that sticks.
Classroom visits to the Stardome Observatory. The student in gold is demonstrating being the Sun. Soon there will be an Earth in blue and a Moon in silver, all demonstrating orbit and rotation.
Stardome also hosts the Auckland Astronomical Society, which is the largest and most diverse amateur group I've seen in New Zealand. Whether you are just getting into astronomy with no prior knowledge, or have your own telescope and want to do observations, or are more interested in theoretical academic astrophysics, the society has something to offer. They even have monthly Junior Member meetings, where kids in the society have a night dedicated just for them. The society also does some outreach in the community, bringing telescopes to events or schools.

One of these such events was a family-friendly Matariki evening celebration. There were different musical performances, and a small lantern parade where kids and their families showed off paper lanterns they made for the celebration. There were too many clouds to set up telescopes as representatives from the society had hoped, but in times where the clouds parted, we stood outside with a laser pointer, showing different constellations, planets, and how to find South using the Southern Cross.
Kids showing off their homemade lanterns at the Matariki festival.
I also traveled a few hours north to the town of Whangarei to visit the Northland Astronomical Society's observatory and planetarium. Twice a month, they host events for the public, and I was lucky enough to get there on a night that was clear and teeming with visitors, including lots of kids. For a small group with only ~35 members, the Northland Astronomical Society has tons of resources, including an old projector that used to belong to the Carter Observatory in Wellington, several telescopes and a teaching room for lectures and discussion. And even with the town of Whangarei nearby, the skies were clear and the Milky Way was perfectly visible.
Guests piling into the small Whangarei planetarium. There were so many people that some were standing at the back or even outside just listening. Even though it was crowded, the visitors -- especially the kids -- seemed to enjoy what the Norhland Astronomical Society had to offer.  
View of the Milky Way above Whangarei. (Not the best quality photo-- need to do some post-processing. But again, posting from an Athens internet cafe where they're not even technologically advanced enough to have A/C.)
Telescope viewing at the Northland Astronomical Society open night.

Yet again, it's clear that the amateur astronomy community in New Zealand is truly the driving force behind astronomy education in the country. And because amateur astronomers are members of the public themselves, typically without academic degrees in science, I find that they know how to communicate with the public in ways that clear and interesting.

While in Auckland, I also met with Mark Mackay from a group called Kiwi Space, a small organization that is looking to raise interest and awareness in space science in New Zealand. The organization is still new, and Mark and I discussed ways to get people involved and the public interested. It's a good question, and one that I think we as astronomers should reflect on more often. It's clear to us why astronomy and space is fascinating, but why is it something that everyone should care about and invest in? What aspects are the most interesting, and how can we share them in engaging ways that will last longer than a one-time event?

In addition to doing all of this astronomy education and learning "heaps," as the Kiwis say, I've also been taking time to travel around a bit and just appreciate the natural beauty of this stunning country. a three day trip around the Coromandel Peninsula was especially amazing, with gorgeous views of beaches and mountainsides at every bend. And so, I finish off with some final photos:
Sunset on the Coromandel Peninsula
Dark skies on a clear night at last! The Milky Way above the Coromandel (and a flashlight on in the foreground).
Even on "vacation" I'm finding astronomy everywhere! This was an astronomy B&B we found while driving through the Coromandel. They're closed for winter, but one of the owners still took time to show me around. I'd love to come back and stay another time!
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
Now it's off to Greece for my final Watson adventure!! Huge and special thanks to the Hadfield family (no relation to astronaut Chris Hadfield) in Auckland who hosted me and allowed me to house-sit their beautiful and cozy home while they traveled. It's been so nice to have a sunny and welcoming place to settle for a few weeks!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

North Island Adventures

Yet again, I've let my travels get ahead of me, and I'm way behind in blogging updates. Since I last checked in, I've launched from Wellington and have been exploring astronomy education around the North Island. I'm now settled in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and home to 1/3 of the country's population. There's been a lot to explore, and I've learned a ton in a short amount of time.

The main theme of June has been Matariki, the celebration of the Maori New Year. Matariki itself is the constellation I know better as the Pleiades, and it's rising in the morning sky just before sunrise is one of the markers of the new year. There are other indicators of the new year in the stars, as well as the sea, but I'll discuss that later on.

From Wellington, I stopped first in Napier along the North Island's east coast. Although Napier is best known for its vineyards and art deco buildings, it also houses a small planetarium and astronomical society. The planetarium is run by Gary Sparks who is passionate about getting the word of astronomy and space exploration out to young people in New Zealand.
Napier vineyards
With Gary, I observed two schools visiting the planetarium. The first was a "community school," for students currently suspended or expelled from their regular schools. The most interesting question from that group came from one young man who asked what would happen if you punched someone in zero gravity (we had just watched a video called "AstroSmiles" about the everyday tasks on the space station). The next day, students visited from the local Waldorf school, and they also had their fair share of interesting questions including, "What's the most unusual thing that exists in outer space?" and "Are there any strange phenomena we can see at night?" Much more abstract than the standard aliens/black holes/shooting star questions that I hear over and over again.
Gary Sparks of the Napier Planetarium

Theater room of the Napier Planetarium. It's an older building, and the technology isn't as up-to-date, but the Napier Planetarium still has the power to inspire young people about the wonders of astronomy.

From Napier, I went to Tauranga/Mount Maunganui along the Bay of Plenty to meet with Jack Thatcher, who recently returned from a waka (canoe) voyage around the Pacific Ocean. His group sails immense distances around the Pacific using only traditional Maori navigation techniques, including observations of the stars and their movements. I joined Jack and some members of the community early in the morning for a Matariki celebration.

I learned from Jack that the New Year is marked not only by the helical rising of the constellation Matariki in the morning sky, but also by the new moon, the orientation of the Milky Way on the horizon in the early morning, as well as other indicators of winter such as tides and weather patterns. The official beginning of the Matariki celebrations was June 10, and on this morning I joined Jack and other members of the community for a walk up to the top of Mount Maunganui to try and spot Matariki itself. It was cloudy, but the sentiment behind the 5am walk was the same -- to ring in the New Year and reflect on the year past. It was a beautiful event, and I feel grateful for being welcomed to it.
Early morning walk to the top of Mount Maunganui to ring in the Maori New Year.
After sunrise, Jack then showed me around and spoke with me further about his voyages and the knowledge they hope to pass down about the movements of the stars and seas to younger Maori generations. Jack showed me a "Star Compass" he created which divides the sky into different regions where different stars are positioned. At the center of the compass, it is as if you're in the waka, and the posts mark the edge of the horizon. Located at the shore in Tauranga, Jack uses it as an educational tool to teach crew members and others in the community about navigational techniques.
Jack Thatcher (right) with one of his crewmates from Rapanui in front of the Star Compass which you can see as white posts in the background. 

From Tauranga, I went further east along the Bay of Plenty to Whakatane, where I met with the local astronomical society. Their facilities are wonderful, with two larger telescopes and a teaching room for school groups and larger meetings as well. And even with the town of Whakatane just at the base of the hill, the Milky Way and Magellanic clouds are clear in their dark night skies. Coming from the east coast of the US, where dark skies are disappearing rapidly, I have been really impressed by the consistently dark skies in New Zealand. Even in Auckland, if you drive 30 miles out from the city, there are skies dark enough to see the Milky Way in detail.

While in Whakatane, I also met with Gloria Witheford who travels around the North Island with her Starlab inflatable planetarium. She was visiting area primary schools, and I was able to tag along to her shows, which included some information about Matariki. Her main focus is to show a bit of the night sky in the planetarium in the hopes that kids will later go outside at night and experience the skies for themselves.
Gloria Witheford and her Starlab Planetarium.
In addition to traveling around and learning about astronomy education on the North Island, I've also been taking time to explore and appreciate New Zealand's natural beauty. This truly is a stunning place.
View of Mount Maunganui, Bay of Plenty. I think this is my favorite place I've been to in NZ so far. The town of Mount Maunganui is a long strip with water on either side, ending in the Mount as sort of the point of an exclamation mark.

Waterfront in Whakatane, Bay of Plenty
View from hills above Whakatane, Bay of Plenty.
Rotorua, known for its geothermal activity. There are tons of natural hotpools and hot springs all over the Rotorua area.
Creek and Waterfall fed by geothermal lake. (Went swimming here.)
I'm now in Auckland, with only two weeks left to go in New Zealand and 5 weeks left of Watson! I mentioned it briefly in my last post, but to finish off the year, I'll be traveling to Greece to attend the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics. I'll be acting as a volunteer journalist for the Olympiad as well as being an additional adult support person for the New Zealand team, whom I met in Wellington (photo below). It should be a great culmination to my year, as I will be speaking with many young people passionate about astronomy.
Team of high school students to represent New Zealand at the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Volos, Greece later this month. This is just one of dozens of teams that will travel from around the world to display their knowledge as well as learn more about astronomy in ancient and modern contexts. 
Updates on my Auckland adventures coming soon!