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