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.
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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!