STEM X Day 3 – Excursions Galore!

The third day of the Academy program was quite different to the rest – we spent the entire day out and about exploring some of the most popular science venues of Canberra.

We were awarded a little sleep in today, which most of us tried to use. The second day had been exhausting and non-stop, so having a bit of a relaxed morning was very welcome. We just had to be up and ready to catch the bus at 8am, off on our first excursion of the day!

Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

We wound our way through the outer areas of Canberra on our bus, and I was struck by how ‘Australian’ it looked. Rusty grass, gum trees, little hills and the occasional bit of wildlife. I’ve never seen an area that looked more quintessentially Aussie, it just made me so happy.

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Arriving at the CDSCC was pretty exciting – this is a NASA facility that provides a vital communication link with spacecraft near and far. You can read a quick history here. Arriving at the facility gives you some pretty spectacular views of the giant radio dishes that serve as the hardware link to outer space, and we were greeted by Glen Nagle from the education staff who gave us a quick background of the facility. We were then lead through the visitor centre to the onsite cafe, which was booked out for our group. We had a little bit of time to sit and relax, enjoying the views of the radio dishes, before our breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast was served. The portion sizes varied widely between the people, but everyone seemed happy enough.

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After breakfast we were given time to explore the exhibits around the visitor centre. There were so many cool things on display, and loads of information about them and about space in general. As we were a group of teachers, we were given the opportunity to try out and report back on some hand-held light box things (I can’t for the life of me remember what they were called) that the centre use in their school bookings. If you look through the slits at a light, it splits the light into the spectrum and you can see a mini rainbow right before your eye! The light you look at determines what parts of the rainbow you see, so it was fun to explore the different lights around the building and how they combine the colours to produce the specific light colour that shines out of them.

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We were given a talk about the centre while crowding around a piece of actual moon rock, with a backdrop of a space suit. It really put things in perspective! We were then lead to their education presentation space and lead through one of the presentations that is shown to the students when they come in. Not only did the presenter give the actual presentation as it would be given to the students, she also expanded on it and explained why she talked about things in certain ways, and little activities to do in different sections. It was so nice being talked to as teachers, by someone who seemed to understand what it’s like to be an actual teacher. Some of the tips she gave were excellent, and gave me ideas for presenting similar content to classes in the future.

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Glen came back to talk again. He said something very profound that really hit home for all of us, even bringing a few teary eyes.

We are teaching the generation who will walk on mars. Based on the ages that the space agencies accept as astronauts, there is a chance that a student from one of our own classes will be the first person to set foot on another planet.

How insane is that.

If we do our jobs right and encourage a love of science in our students, we might just be that teacher that inspired little Johnny or Jane to train as an astronaut and go on that mars expedition. If not that that extreme, they might even be the one who designs the key piece of technology, or plans the ideal meal, or solders the metal together the right way, or writes the critical business plan that lets the expedition happen.

It was so inspirational to have these ideas presented to us while sitting in a NASA facility. Nothing quite like that to reignite the spark and get us keen to get back in the classroom! Even better when we were given a goody bag of teaching resources!

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All too soon it was time to leave, back on the bus to our next science stop for the day. We had such a great start that we were all in the highest of spirits, almost like students ourselves, off on an excursion and getting away from school for a day.

National Arboretum

I love this place. Being a botanist by degree, I love all plant places like this, but this is something completely different. It is literally a botanic garden dedicated to going just trees. This one has 94 forests of different types of rare, endangered, and symbolic trees from all over the world, which might seem incredibly boring to some, but it is incredibly important. Trees go extinct in the wild just like animals do – in fact a lot of animal extinctions happen because their habitats are destroyed. Arboretums provide a place for conservation (they breed trees and save their seeds), research (how they grow, genetic research, etc) and also a place for the public to learn, relax, and enjoy.

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While this arboretum is relatively new the trees are tiny and adorable. I’d love to go back in 100 years and see them all grown up into proper forests that you could wander around in! But don’t worry, there is plenty more to do there than just look at baby trees!

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We were served lunch in the restaurant there, with views of some of the forests and the wider Canberra area beyond. We had a little time to explore the gift shop, and my favourite place of all – the bonsai house. My gosh I love bonsais. They are so beautiful and the ultimate form of patience (something I am in very short supply of most of the time!). I love seeing how old some of them are, and how they have been loved and cared for over the course of their lives to craft them into the art works they are now. Some were over 50 years old, and there was even one from the same year I was born.

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We were given a talk from an educator there, explaining the history of the site and the importance of tree research. Then surprisingly we were back on the bus, but not to leave the site. Instead we were taken to an incredible lookout, with views all over the forests and well beyond. It was amazing to stand out there in the middle of this facility learning about their hopes future directions for the trees and the research and conservation efforts there. We could see the scars in the landscape from the fires that ravaged Canberra all those years ago, and I could just imagine the trees fully grown in their places.

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Back on the bus to another part of the arboretum – a very special part where they grown the Wollemi Pines. If you don’t know their history, have a quick read of this. Standing there next to some of the most endangered trees in the world seemed a bit silly – trees are everywhere, so why should we care about individual species? Mostly because of the same reasons we care about animal species, but unfortunately plants are not as popular as animals, so their conservation is largely overlooked. I personally think they’re fascinating – how can they do all the crazy stuff they do without a brain? Stuff like warning each other when they’re being eaten, using insects and birds to reproduce, moving across landscapes to better locations. I’ve yet to instil this interest in my students, but maybe one day I’ll get lucky!

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Again in too short a time we were back on the bus to leave. I was sad to say goodbye to this facility, but excited to think about the changes I’ll see when I get down there again.

Geoscience Australia

The next stop on our whirlwind tour was another place I’m sure a lot of people would assume is boring. People think of geology and think of rocks, boring old rocks that don’t even do anything (spoiler – that’s pretty much everything below the soil, we kinda need them), but this place is so much more than that.

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Sure inside the foyer is a vast display of hundreds of different types of rocks (wait… there’s that many), and it includes precious gems (yep, they’re often rocks too), but once you start examining them you’ll be sucked in to their intricacies (go find the long shiny black one, but don’t point it out to your kids). They are all so different and yet still the same, it’s crazy to think there are that many that have such different properties. If your kids ever complain about rocks, just remind them that they’re in all their most precious possessions. From their XBox to their makeup, rocks (and minerals) are everywhere.

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We were given a quick introduction to Geoscience Australia as one large group, and there they explained that they are involved in a whole lot more than just rocks. They monitor shifts in the Earth and keep an eye out for potential disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, model natural disasters and their impacts, consult with governments about crisis management, and perform endless hours of geological research in all areas of science. If you have kids who are even remotely interested in geology, earth sciences, natural disasters, or just science in general, encourage them to check this place out!

We were then split into two groups and taken through the same activities in a different order. Our group started out in their 3D presentation room. We all donned a pair of 3D glasses and sat in front of a big projector. We were shown a program that is used for education visits, one that shows the planet with outlines for the continents. It has the ability to overlay points of earthquakes and volcanoes, and you can explore them in detail. The coolest bit is the 3D allows you to see how deep the earthquakes are when they happen, and I can imagine this would be surprising to a lot of students.

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From here we were taken back out into the main area where an old seismograph is stationed (yes, it does work, but we have more sophisticated technology now to record tremors). The education officer explained how the centre uses technology to record the earthquakes. Most of them are too small to be felt by people around Australia, but the technology is sophisticated enough to pick it up. We had a look at some seismograph recordings, which can still be produced by the computers, and learnt how to spot the beginning of the earthquake in the squiggly lines.

Then we were taken down to the Tsunami Warning System – a place full of screens where staff monitor earthquakes. Yes, earthquakes, because they are usually what cause tsunamis. The screens show data from points all around that could have an impact on Australia or the South West Pacific, and if an earthquake happens that is large enough to possibly trigger a tsunami, warning alarms sound. The staff then inform the Bureau of Meteorology and  the Attorney-General’s Department, and continue to monitor the situation in case of after shocks or other earthquakes that could further impact an existing tsunami, or cause another one.

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While staff are monitoring the screens, they do have other tasks to perform so that they don’t go crazy with boredom. If an alarm were to sound, the staff and security on duty are all informed by text message (as well as the alarm sounding in the office) in case they are away from the screens at the time.

A quick break for afternoon tea, and we were taken into the education centre. Here we had a talk from another officer, who lead a discussion about teaching the rocks unit to grade 8s. It is such a dry unit, everyone agrees with that, but she presented a few different activities we could use in class to liven it up. I absolutely loved these ideas, but the school I’m a this year has shifted the rocks out of the year 8 curriculum so I won’t get a chance to use them!

My favourite activity was one I could see as an assessment piece. They had set up a grid outside, large enough to walk all over. On this grid were placed rock samples in specific places. Our job was to identify the rocks (like I’m sure we’ve all done with our classes) and map them on a chart we were given. Once we had completed that, we went back inside to turn that map into a diagram of a cross-section going down into the earth. We had to colour code it, and describe the order in which the layers formed based on their position and composition. This was such a great way to present this task, I wish I could have done it with a class this year. Oh well, keeping it in the resource bank for the future!

Once we were finished with our activities, we were very generously given time to raid the teacher resources available. I can’t thank Geoscience Australia enough for that – we all picked up posters, activity sheets, bookmarks, and magazines to take back for our classes this year. Turns out I might not use them, but I am keeping them for the future anyway!

You might think this was surely the end of our day, but you would be wrong. On to the bus again, this time off to the National Botanic Gardens!

National Botanic Gardens

If you thought I liked the Arboretum, you’d assume I’d love the Botanic Gardens, and you’d be completely right. The only thing I didn’t like about this trip was that it was squished into an already packed day, and we had less than an hour there.

First up was a talk about what a botanic garden actually is, and why they’re important (hint: research, conservation, enjoyment). I could see quite a few people switching off which made me sad – botanic gardens can be used as an educational resource for all sciences, not just biology, and they are largely overlooked as an excursion destination because plants are ‘boring’. I know we were all tired, but it would have been good if everyone rallied and tried to get into it. As Jared said right at the beginning, you won’t get anything out of these activities if you don’t throw yourself into them.

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We were split into groups and lead into the gardens by guides, each of us off in different directions. Our guide first showed us some trees that are nearly extinct in the wild, just growing here quite happily next to the car park. You’d pass over them without a second thought if you didn’t know about them. Then we were shown to another area with some very unusual trees. We were given the challenge to work out how many different species were represented in the sheet below:

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I won’t tell you the answer, but post your guess in the comment below or contact if you’d like to know!

Off to another section of the gardens, and we were shown some activities we could do with our students back at school. One great one was very simple – get  along piece of string and have one student holding each end so that it is stretched out. One end is the beginning of the earth, the other end is now. Students have to guess where along the timeline certain things happened, such as the beginning of the dinosaurs, the first living things, humans, smart phones, whatever you want them to think about.

We then went and saw an example of one of the trees in the picture above (yes, there is more than one). Here you can see a fascinating adaptation – the fern-like leaves are the baby leaves of the tree. As the tree grows, the leaves fuse together to eventually form one big leaf. Here the tree is adapting for its growth – a larger surface area to volume ratio when it is young means it can photosynthesis more, allowing it to grow faster and establish itself. Once it has grown enough, the leaves fuse because it doesn’t need to grow as fast.

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After this, the guide showed us how to do a pond dip, looking at all the tiny life that exists in pond water. Then he discussed Indigenous use of plants and rocks to survive all that time ago, and showed us an example of how they would place a rock in the fork of a tree branch, wait for the tree to grow around the rock to lock it in place, then use it as an axe or hammer. This is the ultimate in forward thinking and planning, and indeed patience, something that would astound our students.

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All too soon it was time to jump back on the bus again, to our final destination of the day.

Questacon

I love this place. I loved a lot of places we went to on this day, it was such a fun day of exploration.

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We arrived to find tables being set up for our dinner. But before we could dig in, it was time to shop! Many of us spent a great deal of time in the shop, carefully weighing up what could fit into our luggage to go back on the plane. I ended up fitting into one of the larger children’s lab coats with the Questacon logo on it, so of course I grabbed that! Once we were all shopped out, it was time to go have our meal. There was so much food, and quite a bit of alcohol too. Trust a bunch of teachers to go exploring Questacon while under the influence, it really adds to the experience I think.

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After dinner we were given free range of the centre. We ran off like children ourselves, playing with all the exhibits and learning quite a bit too. There were more than a few competitions going on around the different levels as people tried to best each other on the exhibits. Laughter and talk rang through the centre, it was great to see everyone letting off some steam. We were even able to try some gin and tonic sorbet, made with dry ice in the true science-teacher way.

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Eventually it was time to go, but many people lingered around not wanting to leave. Alas, we needed to get back and get some sleep, another busy day awaited us tomorrow!

 


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About the Author:

Emily is a secondary science teacher. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, creating hilarious teaching memes, and drinking tea and wine. You can see more posts from Emily here!

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