STEM X Day 4 – Physics, More Space, and Formal Dinner

The fourth day of our program had a much more relaxed timetable than the first three. It was lovely to be able to slow down a bit and consolidate everything we’d learned so far.

Breakfast was back to normal today, and many people were out early for walks or runs on our second last day of the program. We were starting to think about returning back to reality, and how we could implement our learning in our classrooms – which was exactly what part of our day was to be about! Back on our favourite bus to the Questacon education centre for the morning, some people with slightly sore heads after kicking on the night before.

Physics

We had a ‘Science Presentation TBA’ on our program, so we were all curious what was going to happen. We sat in the main area of the Questacon IPTLC, and were pleasantly surprised by the next hour.

For a lot of people the last thing they’d want is an hour long talk about physics early on a Thursday morning, but Prof John Close made it pretty darn interesting. Just like the other people we had been introduced to throughout this program, this is clearly a man who understands teaching and education. He started out by discussing the point of physicists. A lot of people simply don’t understand what they do, and can’t see the need for them (must the same as the physics subject at school). Funny thing is, you are reading this right now because of physicists. In the 1860’s they gained control of electrons in metals and created telegraphs. Much more recently they gained control of protons and made optical fibres. Physics certainly isn’t all theoretical, and more importantly, it certainly isn’t pointless and boring.

From his bio, his ‘main field of research focuses on harnessing the quantum properties of ultra-cold atoms to advance precision measurements of rotation, acceleration, gravity, magnetic fields and time and the development of field deployable technology based on those advances.’ In other words, he cools things down by ridiculous amounts so they can make very precise measurements, and use this in technology. John explained how physicists will often start with a fundamental question about life or the universe, then they work to create whatever they need to be able to try answering it.

My goodness some of my students would love to be involved in that, but if you told them to become a physicist, they probably wouldn’t link the two ideas together. John reckons he has ‘the coolest lab in the world, purely because of the equipment, but the people are kinda nerdy’. I love that little quote, I regularly brag to my students about being nerdy and how amazing that is.His lab uses 6 lasers to cool down atoms (using lasers to cool down atoms, how amazing is that!). They are the equal best lab in the world for measurements of gravity, and using this information they can develop navigation systems that wipe the floor with GPS. They are currently working to develop photonic microphones for musicians, and are currently building an insane-sounding advanced flight simulator that is linked to a quadcopter so that the person is ‘in’ it, feeling everything that it does.

The equipment and technology they use is all designed and constructed in-house as they realise they need it, simply because they don’t exist anywhere else. There is a big inventor and engineer aspect to their work as physicists, which I’m so excited to share with my students because they often aspire to careers like that, but feel like it’s an impossible dream.

THIS, this is exactly the type of information we need to be getting across to our students to engage them in STEM. I never knew physics could be so cool and exciting, so how on earth could I possibly get my students that interested in it. I am so excited to go back to class and share this information with them. It might just be enough to interest one or two students in a career in science.

We need more researchers sharing with schools. More people like Prof John Close who are willing to talk with students about the side of science that school doesn’t really expose them to. Don’t get me wrong, they absolutely need to learn the basics of scientific knowledge before they get there and that’s what school provides, but understanding that this type of science is out there and available for them to be involved with could be a key driver in increasing enrolments etc.

Preparation for our Presentation

After morning tea, we were given a run down of what was expected of us for our presentations on Friday. We needed to develop some thing that would be useful in the classroom – it could be an activity, a game, a unit outline, an assessment, anything that we would like to use. Many of us had questions, and this information session ended up running for a little while so we were left with a little over an hour to design our thing.

Us teachers can be pretty swift in developing resources, but we were working in teams and all trying to develop something brand new, so an hour really wasn’t long enough at all. Groups were frantically trying to pick something specific to develop and try out to make sure it worked. Our activity failed spectacularly when we tried it, but we were assured that that was perfectly ok. There is nothing wrong with presenting an activity idea with the knowledge of how it won’t work – perhaps another person could find a way to fix it.

All too soon it was time to pack up and move on. Many of us were unhappy about the short planning time, but we would have a little bit of free time back at the uni in the afternoon to keep working on it if we wanted to.

Pulse @ Parkes

Back on the bus again, this time over to the CSIRO Black Mountain facility. Here we had lunch down in the Discovery Centre (amazing place by the way, if you get the chance go check it out!). Afterwards, it was up to one of their conference spaces for an afternoon with the good people of Pulse @ Parkes.

I have done this session before so it wasn’t all new and shiny for me, but it was still interesting and fun.

Pulse @ Parkes is a program designed to allow students to take control of the Parkes radiotelescope and observe pulsars under the guidance of astronomers. That’s right, they are actually in control. And the data they collect is real and used by the astronomers in their research and work. The radiotelescope is dedicated to observing space and isn’t used to track space craft or satellites.

We were given a run down of what a pulsar is, with the great analogy that they are very dense. So dense, in fact, that they are denser than a year 9 class. If you are interested in what pulsars are, this is a great website explanation. Basically they are a rotating neutron star that is emitting pulses of radiation as it spins. Astronomers can detect this radiation as data which can be presented as a graph or, more excitingly, as sound.

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We were given time to work in groups, choosing a currently known pulsar to focus the radiotelescope on and collect more data from. The program had a visual link with the radiotelescope, so you can actually see it moving in real time to adjust itself to the correct position to observe the pulsar you’ve chosen. Then a few different plots on the screen will light up with the data you are collecting, and there are a few different activities your students can do with it. If you are interested in doing this with your own students (getting them involved in actual astronomy research, in real time) please jump on the website and get in touch with them!

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That line you see above is the pulsar itself, and the graph below is one of the activities the students do – Determining the distance of a pulsar via differences in speed according to frequency of radio waves (actually easier than it might sound using their software).

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Unfortunately a lot of our group switched off during this session. Far too many of them were sitting there complaining about how it wasn’t relevant to them, which is a load of rubbish if you ask me. You don’t have to teach astronomy for it to be relevant – it’s real life science for goodness sake! At the very least, doing the activities with the students exposes them to actual research, and develops their data processing skills. It’s another example of science that doesn’t occur in a lab with beakers, and for some students it might be right up their alley. They don’t even have to know the technicalities of what a pulsar is (beyond a rotating star that shoots out radiation, which is what we’re observing) to be able to engage with the activity. It really disappointed me to see the group acting in this way, because I know the presenters noticed too, particularly when groups wandered out to sit and chat in the coffee shop instead of getting involved. It actually really annoyed me, it came across as so ungrateful and unprofessional. Thankfully this was the only instance that happened throughout the week.

It was a long session though. 3.5 hours was far too much time given that only the people at the computers could do things, half that amount of time would have been perfect and maybe some of the people wouldn’t have switched off. But many of us simply stood by and watched what they were doing when we weren’t involved ourselves, talking with the presenters and learning. Like Vic and Jared said at the beginning – no point being here if you’re not going to get involved! The presenters were so passionate about their craft, and so willing to answer questions and share ideas and information. For those of us who got involved, we sure learned a heck of a lot about pulsars, space, astronomy, the technology they use, and how to bring it into our classrooms!

“Free” time

Eventually it was time to walk back to our accommodation for a couple of hours of ‘free’ time to get ready for the formal dinner that evening. I say it like that because for most of us it was time to continue planning our presentations, which for many took up at least half of the time available. Then we went back to our rooms to nap, doll up, call home, and generally clear our heads for the evening.

Formal Dinner

Combined again into the entire group, we walked over to Psychedeli, where our formal dinner was held.

Joining us that evening were many of the guests who had been part of our program that week, and others who were sponsors for the program or for the scholarships some people obtained to allow them to participate. We were seated at tables according to a pre-determined list, which annoyed many people until they realised it was so they could be seated with their sponsors.

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There was a lot of alcohol that night, but the food seemed to be a bit light on. The entrees were served as finger food, but there wasn’t a huge amount of them and they were placed around the edges of the awkward space – the tables were in the centre of the room with a bar, and a rock garden separated the seating area from the empty standing areas around it. Because it was so packed, we had to walk through the rock gardens to the standing areas, which resulted in me standing on a rogue rock on the tiles and slipping over, very badly bruising my knee at one stage (2 weeks later and the swelling has gone, but the bruise is still here!). It meant a few people actually didn’t get any because they didn’t realise they were there!

We were given plenty of time to stand around and chat with everyone, which was really nice. Primary and secondary teachers traded stories of the week, and we were able to chat more with the presenters we’d encountered throughout the week. Then it was time to sit at our tables for the main meal. Many people were a bit tipsy by this stage, but that only made the speeches better. We again thanked our sponsors, and heard from the almuni present. Dinner was an alternate drop style, and (for me at least) was again a little on the light side, particularly with the amount of alcohol served. It was damn delicious though, and quickly followed by an equally delicious dessert.

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We had more time to mingle, and take photos of the various groups (QLD represent!). It really was a great evening to end the week, being able to share stories and consolidate friendships. Many of us planned to try and get to CONASTA this year, forming our own little alumni group there (hopefully it happens!), and others laid the groundwork for partnerships with researchers and sponsors. I managed to have a chat with Dr Ben Greene, who it turns out is the boss of Jess‘s dad and also did his first degree at the same university I did! We even grew up in nearby suburbs, so that was a fun conversation.

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At the end of the night we walked back to the accommodation, with many peeling off to kick on at local pubs. I, however, chose to be a nanna and go back for sleep – it certainly has been an exhausting week and tomorrow would be just as busy.

What a great day it was!

 


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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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