Tag Archives: science

Targets in the night sky…and a new star

Astronomy lecturer Dr Simone Scaringi has put in place a new initiative that saw him take his ASTR211 students off to the University of Canterbury, Mt John Observatory on a field trip during the mid-term break. The students were able to experience life as observing astronomers.  We dig deeper into his inspiration for the initiative and the approach he took. 

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Q1. Where did the idea for this new initiative come from?

The idea started off from a few things. First, I thought that, given the opportunities that the University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory (UCMJO) provides, it would be great if students would benefit from what is essentially the only professional observatory in New Zealand.

Second, I was inspired by a course which I took as a second year student in the UK, and later helped as an assistant on the same course, where a group of students was taken to the Canary islands to use the telescopes there for a few days. I remember being fascinated when I first got to the observatory at the time as I knew that not many people actually got the chance to use those telescopes. With this course I am hoping to transmit at least some of that fascination I first had.

Q2. You took an interesting approach where students identified what they wanted to achieve? Tell us more about why you approached the initiative in this way.

Yes, the students had to identify upfront what they’d like to achieve. During the first term, they had 2x2hour lectures every week. During those lectures they were taught the basics of observational astronomy, how telescopes work, how the sky moves during the night and how to find a specific target, how the imagers work, etc…

They were also told they had to prepare an “observing proposal” to be handed in before the actual field trip. Doing this ensures that they have thought (or at least tried) a) what object(s) they want to observe b) what science questions they hope to answer and c) how they will go about taking the data. We had three telescopes available during the field trip, and all had different strengths and weaknesses.

To optimise they scientific return and be able to succeed, the students had to think about the technical details of each of the telescopes and identify a) which one they required and b) how much time they needed. The good thing with this approach is that once they got at the observatory, they already knew what to do (more or less!) and could get on with observations from night one.

The other factor that got me to adopt this approach boils down to the fact that there are lot’s of different targets in the night sky (stars, galaxies, nebula, and so on). Each student might have a favourite type of object, and with this approach they are free to choose their own favourite targets to study, hopefully making them want to understand them better, do good science, and make the whole learning experience more enjoyable.

Now we’re in the second half of the course, and students are busy analysing their data. They also need to submit a report, give a presentation, and prepare a poster which they will hang-up and I’ll organise people from the department to come and have a look (hopefully with pizza involved too). The whole point with the course is essentially to “recreate” the life-cycle of an observational astronomy research project: 1) write a proposal to ask for telescope time 2) reduce and analyse your data 3) write a paper 4) present your results at a conference through a talk an poster.

Q3. What proved to be the best part of the field trip for you?

A few things. The first I guess, given that this is the first time I’ve ever run something like this, is that overall it worked! No one complained, got hurt, or started crying (working 12 hour night shifts for several nights in a row might do that to you).

The second great thing for me was actually seeing some of the students being enthusiastic about the opportunity, and really into their projects, sharing their ideas with other students and being eager to look at their “fresh” data soon after it was acquired. Overall I think some students were more keen than others (to be expected I think), but I am confident that everyone learned a good set of skills during the field trip, which I hope they’ll find useful elsewhere too.

Last, we got lucky, and were the first group to find a new “star” in the sky. This discovery resulted in an Astronomer’s Telegram (a published short letter discussing new findings that might require immediate attention from other astronomers around the world). Obviously, all students were authors on this. If you need more info about it let me know. The ATel  can be found here.

Thanks to the students of this course for their photography.

Cascading Hazards – watch 3rd place Thesis-in-Three video

Each year, the Dean of Postgraduate Research at UC sponsors and organises the Thesis in Three competition for postgraduate students. PhD and Masters students give a three-minute presentation to describe their thesis research with only a single presentation slide permitted. The top three students from each college round go on to compete in the UC final.

At the UC final,  Jess McHale (Science) took third place.  Watch her presentation (video: 3 min 08 seconds) here on Cascading Hazards – the idea that one hazard triggers another, which triggers another.

How to make the most of a science fair – be a judge

On Saturday 9 September, I was invited along with a bunch of my student peers to be a judge on the Canterbury Westlands Schools’ Science and Technology Fair 2017 at Ara Institute. Over 200 students enthusiastically presented their work on a variety of topics which, honestly, blew my mind!

Not having previous experience in judging a school science exhibition did not deter me. In fact, the very astute Tamsin Laird, outreach coordinator for the College of Science, made me talk about my background in journalism in a judges meeting to highlight my interest in and the relevance of science communication in today’s world. Because what better event than a science fair to think about changing the world?

Here’s why I thoroughly enjoyed judging the science fair:

  1. It took me back to a time (erm, decades ago) when I was a school student and exhibiting science projects to my peers and my teachers. Even if it wasn’t on such a large scale as the one at Ara, the butterflies in the stomach were unmistakable, as was the friendly competition among students! For the first time as an adult, I saw parents being apprehensive (but supportive) about the results of the competition!
  2. I went in without any preset expectations, but I had a set of guidelines and a very able school physics and chemistry teacher for a co-judge (judges were paired to check exhibits). The thoroughness of some students amazed me, but the cherry on the cake was understanding what motivated them to choose their topics.
  3. Many of the students took everyday problems they faced or witnessed around them to construct a hypothesis which they went on to prove or disprove. I wouldn’t be surprised if (hypothesis idea for next year!) a chunk of mankind’s discoveries were made similarly: by just observing or thinking about something that one witnessed. Imagine this: at one point, Lord Rayleigh must have just looked at the sky and wondered why it was blue. And then actually managed to find why! Our young padawans are on the right track.
  4. Young students are keenly observing the world around us. They left no stone unturned when it came to choosing a topic: right from things we take for granted (does a cat have a paw preference like humans are right and left handed?) to unmasking the veracity of an advertisement (do garlic supplements boost your health?) to the surprising finding (to me) that duck poo actually contains a host of e coli!

The scientific method may be methodical and some may say, almost contained, in its frame of hypothesis/observation — measurement — experiment — testing — modification and more experiments and testing in the over 400 years that it has existed for. However, for the lack of “better” methods, science continues to be the most effective tool we have developed and used to propel our species in understanding ourselves and our environment the best we can.

Giving young students an encouraging push towards science can mean a different and maybe positive history for our future generations. Go on then, introduce someone young to the marvellous world of science!

Written by Sneha Johari

Kaikōura Earthquake marine survey response

We invite staff and students to Undercroft 101 to attend a presentation by Dr Joshu Mountjoy, Marine Geologist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). 

Dr Joshu Mountjoy is a UC alumnus who completed his PhD thesis in Geology in 2009.

Date:                     17 August 2017

Time:                    1-2 pm

Location:             Undercroft 101 Seminar Room

170810 joshu_mountjoy__niwaThe marine survey response to the Mw7.8 14 November 2016 Kaikōura Earthquake commenced within a few days of the event. This involved redeployment of R.V. Tangaroa from a paleo-seismological survey that was coincidentally taking place off the east coast of North Island at the time. Since then, additional survey data were collected on NIWA’s coastal vessel Ikatere, and during three further, somewhat opportunistic, surveys by Tangaroa.

These surveys collectively acquired high-resolution multibeam bathymetry data, sub-bottom profiles, sediment cores, and video transects with three primary objectives:

  1. Identifying the seaward extensions of co-seismic surface faulting off the North Canterbury and eastern Marlborough coasts; and
  2. Identifying the extent of co-seismic submarine landslides triggered in Kaikōura Canyon, and an associated turbidity current that carried sediment more than 600km along the Hikurangi Trough to beyond Hawkes Bay.
  3. Assess the impact of the earthquake on benthic communities in the Kaikōura Canyon

This seminar will outline the results of this work, discuss their local and global implications, and how the marine studies have been integrated with the wider geoscience response work.