An 3am start for me. A mad dash to the airport by taxi on another hot day. A plane from Sibu to Kuala Lumpur. Another plane to Singapore (we only found out at the airport that we'd be going to Singapore rather than directly to Johor Bahru). We cleared immigration at Singapore by midday and were driven by taxi back into Malaysia.
We arrived at Foon Yew High School in barely on time in the early afternoon. Four mini classrooms were laid out in the school hall. Unfortunately no projector or whiteboard available to anyone. This pretty much ruled out the lessons I'd been using up until that point. With only minutes until the arrival of my first class of 40 students I decided to do an impromptu session on design considerations in aeronautical engineering and their subsequent impact on experimental test flights.
In other words I just spent the next hour and half making paper aeroplanes with kids. A competition to see who could design a plane to travel furthest in a straight line. After the play-off style tournament the students were allowed to tweak the design before trying again. I got them to come up with branding and logos for their designs (in everyday parlance - they coloured their planes in).
And that was it - the end of the STEM sessions. On Friday we're heading back to Singapore. Only admin, networking and paperwork left on this trip now. And still...no stars at night.
Well my plan to post a blog entry every day was derailed by the rubbish wifi in each hotel. Honestly! Don't promote your hotel as having wifi if the service is this bad. Better to say you don't have it and not disappoint your guests! Rant over :-) All this travelling seems to blend the days together in my memory. Here's a quick catchup on what's happened so far...
On Tuesday I was at Chung Hwa High School in Miri. Only time for one session so I did the Buffon's needle experiment. After several hundred needle throws we got pi to be 2.9. We talked about reasons why the experiment might give a different value to the actual value (3.1, to one decimal place).
I'm just about recovered from the journey (3 flights from Newcastle in 30 hours) and maybe just a little jet-lagged. Highlight of the journey itself was seeing the city lights of Baghdad from 37,000 feet during late evening twilight. The sky not yet dark and a brilliant full moon over the city. With much of the atmosphere and air pollution below me the moon looked as close to white as I've ever seen it. Absolutely stark contrast between the city lights and darkness of the surrounding desert.
Today and tomorrow I'm the city of Miri, Malaysia. Today I've been preparing for my session at a local school tomorrow. That was followed by a meal and chat at a lovely seafood restaurant at the harbour. It was good hearing what the other INTO folk have got planned for their sessions....the students are going some good STEM lessons this week.
The weather has been wet today. The rain was hammering on the window this morning. It eased off at lunchtime and the clouds broke enough for me to catch Jupiter in the western sky just after sunset. But none of the southern (normally invisible) stars yet. Really want to see the Southern Cross!
Off to the airport soon. Newcastle to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai. Then a bit of wait before my next flight to Miri. I'll be dashing to different places and ending up in Singapore by the end of the week. Almost on the equator and a nice place to see the entire sky.
I've no idea whether I'll see the night sky while I'm there. Probably too much light pollution in places I'm staying. Astronomically, my primary goal is to see the Southern Cross (aka Crux). And Alpha Centauri - very nearby in the sky. I missed out seeing them from Venezuela last year because they were too close to the Sun. No binoculars or camera going with me so it's purely naked-eye astronomy.
Just three days before I'm on a plane to Malaysia. Finally, I got to try the Buffon's needle experiment with some student volunteers today. Instead of needles, I'm using 15mm panel pins from Homebase. (How I can get hundreds of these through airport security is another matter!) Cotton buds would have been ideal but (a) they're too big for A4 paper (in the configuration I want to use) and (b) they're tough to cut down to a uniform size. Hmmm...
I went through the lesson with my students. They're almost at the end of their Foundation year at INTO and they have a good background in trigonometry and calculus. Between them - 200 needles - and an eventual estimate of pi which came out at 2.9. Not too bad for such a small number of pins.
Hopefully I'll collect enough data from classes in Malaysia to hit one decimal place of accuracy. Maybe. We will see :-)
With less than a week to go I'm just about settled on the sessions I'm going to do in Malaysia. Here's a brief summary.
A mathematical experiment to determine the value of pi. Needles, or an equivalent (cotton buds, matches, hot-dogs) are thrown onto a surface with regularly spaced lines. The ratio between needles touching and not touching can be used to estimate pi.
This lesson covers a suite of mathematical skills: data collection and analysis, probability, trigonometry, calculus and Monte Carlo methods.
This is a surprising (to most people) result concerning the distribution of first digits in many samples of data. For example, in lists containing asteroid diameters in meters, isotope half lives in seconds, student heights in mm your intuition might tell you that you're just as likely to get a 1, 4 or a 9 as the first digit. A physicist called Frank Benford discovered that not only was intuition wrong about that, but that the distribution of first digits followed a beautiful mathematical pattern.
This lesson requires a bit of data analysis and unit conversions. The mathematical explanation of why Benford's law works is fairly complicated. I'm planning to just give the hand waving version using concepts they'll "get" like percentage change frequency distribution of digits in the integers.
Benford's law in mathematically interesting in its own right but it has practical applications in terms of fraud detection. It's easy to detect when books have been cooked with numbers that human generated. If you're going to do it - you'll need to know about Benford :-)
Where are the aliens?
I've done this presentation so many times with the astronomy club. I'll start by asking the students whether or not they think life exists beyond the Earth and perhaps if any of them can give a persuasive reason for their position. Usually the majority response is "Yes" and the reason is version of "because the universe is so big". The obvious question is well, where are the aliens? Then I'll do a brief summary on the search of extrasolar planets and the history of SETI. In other words, present the students with the evidence and have a discussion which attempts to resolve the apparent paradox between widespread planetary systems and no evidence of intelligent life beyond the Earth.
3D Tour of the Solar System
This is another popular astronomy presentation with NASTRO. I'll run with this one when I've got 15-20 minutes only. Lot's of pretty pictures and I'll get the students to tell me what they know about the solar system as we go. And on top of that...it really is 3D (well, red-blue anaglyph).
Dr Adrian Jannetta
Guitar strummin' explorer of the universe. Mild mannered maths teacher by day and astronomer by night.