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.

1 comment:

  1. what an awesome article, maya!! they're lucky to have you reporting for them. this sounds like a seriously amazing event for all the students who get to participate. so cool that you get two back-to-back experiences of camaraderie & insta-community: this and then the watson conference.

    so much love to you!! thinking about you lots as you soak up these last few days. -maddie