Thursday, 23 February 2017

A visit from NASA

I was recently extremely pleased and honoured to welcome two NASA scientists, Dr Dorian Janney and Peter Falcon, on a visit to my school. There were a number of factors that led up to this point, which I will outline here, along with a brief overview of the visit itself. 

A few years ago my school purchased an automated weather station. We had it installed on the roof, and it now continuously uploads data to the website Weather Underground. Since then a colleague, Craig Wardman, and myself have also facilitated the participation of some our students in various citizen science programmes. These include NASA's S'COOL and CloudSat weather observation schemes. During that time we have held a number of videoconferences for our students where they had the opportunity to interact with different NASA scientists.

Recently, however, we were lucky enough to take things a step further, when two NASA scientists, Dr Dorian Janney and Peter Falcon, paid a visit to our school. We invited our Year 8 students, along with members of our Climate Club, to join in with an afternoon of activities and discussions about the scientists' work with NASA.

The students began with presentations about life in Bangkok and at our school, and followed this up with a fun quiz created in Mentimeter. Whenever we have videoconferences, webinars, or indeed visits such as this, we encourage some of our students to give brief presentations. This gives them invaluable speaking practice, especially as some of them may go on in the future to international careers where English is the medium of communication. 

Following the students' presentations, Dorian gave a great talk about the important work NASA is doing in relation to the earth's water cycle. The kids were surprised to learn that the water they drink could have once been dinosaur pee! 

Next, Peter gave a fascinating insight into life as a NASA scientist. He outlined the time his department were given the opportunity to launch an instrument that would be attached to the International Space Station - except they had an extremely tight window of opportunity in which to design and construct the instrument. They managed to put an instrument together in time by rounding up old bits of kit they had from previous missions. 

The day ended with a line of students queuing up to ask questions, which Dorian and Peter very patiently answered. This was a great way for our students to make connections between what they learn in class and real-world science, while engaging in discussions with practising scientists from NASA, a globally-recognised leader of scientific research and exploration.

All in all, this was a fantastic experience for our students, and one which we can hopefully repeat in the future. We are very grateful to Dorian and Peter for affording our students this opportunity. As a thank you we took them out for dinner - although this also gave us more time to quiz them about their amazing experiences of working with NASA!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Fun and safe in cyberspace!

At the end of last year my school held our latest digital citizenship week. Such events are a great way to raise the profile, among both students and teachers, of issues relating to the safe, effective, and ethical use of online resources. Teachers from different grade levels spent one or two of their class periods delivering a lesson around various issues relating to digital citizenship. For example, I spent a double period with my students exploring the use of copyrighted images and Creative Commons materials. Other teachers looked at digital footprints, online security, and cyberbullying. 

Students having fun at the Thai ETDA.

There are many digital citizenship resources available online. However, one of the key ones for me is Common Sense Media. In fact, they even offer certification in digital citizenship for both schools and individual teachers, which my school and our participating teachers have now achieved, thanks to my colleague James Sayer

As part of our efforts to raise awareness of digital citizenship, we asked our students to complete an anonymous online questionnaire about their experiences around cyberbullying. This was done prior to digital citizenship week, so it is possible that many students were unaware of exactly what constitutes cyberbullying. In total, 156 students responded to the survey. Of these, 45% reported that they had not been cyberbullied, but sadly 14% said they had been (see the infographic, below). However, quite a high proportion of respondents (41%) reported that they didn't know if they had been cyberbullied. This is likely to be a reflection of the fact that many students were not aware of each type of cyberbullying. However, 63% of respondents stated that they knew of someone who had been cyberbullied. 

Among the students who reported they had been victims of cyberbullying, only 40% had actually reported it, most commonly to their parents (40%).  

In addition to the activities carried out in school, our Year 8 students were fortunate enough to be invited to Thailand's Electronic Transaction Development Agency for a half-day of activities relating to digital citizenship, including cyberbullying awareness-raising. The students were able to take part in a variety of different games as well, which they all really enjoyed, so thanks must go to the ETDA staff for all of their hard work in organising the event!

As a result of digital citizenship week, plus the visit to the ETDA, it will be interesting to see if and how the responses to our survey change when we present it to students again for next year's digital citizenship week. The more we educate our students about how to navigate the online world, the safer their cyberspace interactions will be. 

Cyberbullying survey infographic (Courtesy of my colleague James Sayer).

Monday, 22 August 2016

Linking learning to the real world

This week we held a second day-long workshop on mathematical modelling of infectious diseases for my Year 13/Grade 12 students. The workshop was run by team of researchers from the Mahidol University-Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Unit here in Bangkok. The team were from the Mathematical and Economic Modelling Group headed by Professor Lisa White (who also happens to be my wife!) The workshop was arranged by myself and my colleague from our maths department, James Sayer. 

The rationale behind the workshop was to provide a cross-curricular STEM event, which aimed to give our students an opportunity to see how what they are learning in the classroom may be applied to real-life, and in some cases life or death, situations. For example, one of the areas the team has worked on was the recent Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. Additionally, our students gained insights into life as an international researcher, with role models, both female and male, representing a variety of nationalities - Thai, Myanmar, Laos, and British. 

Although this event was a success when we held it last year, based on students' feedback we made a few tweaks for this year's workshop. In the weeks prior to the workshop, James focused on the necessary mathematical topics with the students, such as differentiation. In my classes I spent some time with the students looking at epidemiology and infectious disease, and also bringing them up to speed with some of the technical vocabulary they would need. I also had them give small group presentations based on different aspects of pandemic influenza, such as why do these pandemics often originate in Asia, the link between humans, animals, and influenza, and the economic consequences of pandemic flu. 

The day was also structured slightly differently. There was the same mixture of practical activities, talks, and computer-based exercises. However, throughout the day this time each scientist gave a brief 10 minute overview of their own research and why it was relevant. For example, Dr Sai Thien Than Tun spoke about his individual-based modelling to investigate malaria epidemiology in Myanmar villages, PhD student Peeradone Srichan discussed his work looking at the distribution of Dengue fever cases in Bangkok, and Research Assistant Nattwut Aekaphirat talked about malaria infection in the individual. Divaree Franssen was once again on hand to provide assistance and support, and big thanks also go to my colleagues Ajarn Gahng, the students' homeroom teacher, for her help, and Khun Adun, for videoing the day's events. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

A student videoconference with NASA

Getting students involved with global citizen science projects is a great way to engage kids with science and to instil curiosity and a desire for lifelong learning. There are many such projects available, and this week some students at my school were fortunate enough to participate in a videoconference with a scientist from NASA!

Students give a presentation about El Nino.

Joining us from NASA for this videoconference was Peter Falcon, the NASA/JPL Earth Science Outreach Coordinator, who also works with the CloudSat Education Network

The session began with my students giving the traditional Thai greeting to Peter, before some Matayom 3 (Grade 9) students gave a presentation about the effects of the latest El Nino event here in southeast Asia (thanks go to my colleague Ajarn Craig Wardman for helping the students prepare for this). 

Students making their CloudSat observations. 

Peter was impressed at the level of detail and information provided by our students. He next gave us a 30 minute presentation on some of the background to the CloudSat project and how the data collected by students around the world are used by NASA scientists to calibrate their satellite instruments. He also explained how the CloudSat project nearly came to a premature end when the satellite's solar panels stopped working correctly. Fortunately, after several months of trial-and-error tweaking, the NASA scientists came up with a solution which allowed the CloudSat satellite to resume its observations, and the project was saved. 

Group photo!

This kind of collaborative, global project can be used to get students engaged across all of the STEM subjects. It can even lead to a STEAM-based approach, with art added to the mix of science and technology. For example, Peter mentioned some schools have students write poetry about clouds, in addition to learning about the earth and climate science aspects. 

Overall, holding this videoconference served two main purposes. Firstly, it allowed those students who had already participated in CloudSat to see how their data helped NASA scientists with their research. Secondly, it hopefully aroused interest in the younger students so that they will wish to take part in the CloudSat project in the future. This seems to have worked - later this week some students will be participating in their first CloudSat observations!

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ditch That Textbook!

Ditch That Textbook is the brainchild of US Spanish teacher Matt Miller. Although the 'ditch' approach, as the name suggests, obviously advocates moving away from a dependence on textbooks, it involves much more than that - it is about ditching a textbook approach to teaching and learning. Matt's website is full of useful blog posts that suggest many different ways to approach ditching. 

The 'DITCH' part of Ditch That Textbook is in fact an acronym which stands for:
  • D - Different - trying out different approaches to pedagogy in the classroom
  • I - Innovative - coming up with new ideas, or modifying great ideas from other teachers, without being afraid to fail now and again
  • T - Tech-laden - making use of the latest digital technology and incorporating it where appropriate for the material
  • C - Creative - giving students the opportunity to explore their own creative potential
  • H - Hands-on - giving students more opportunities to engage in active learning

Ditching is a great way to customize materials for classes to make them more relevant for your own particular students. For example, if we are studying invasive species in my biology class, instead of using examples given in the textbook, I can provide my students with case studies based on invasive species here in Thailand, such as water hyacinth. In our evolution topic, I can draw on the most recent research into the evolution of resistance to antimalarial drugs on the Thai-Cambodian border. 

As can be seen from the acronym, the use of tech tools forms an important strand of the ditch philosophy, the 'T' standing for Tech-laden. The use of learning management systems like Moodle, and more recently Google Apps for Education (GAFE) tools, like Google Classroom, lend themselves perfectly to a ditching approach. Another great way to ditch using tech is through Hyperdocs.

I was already moving away from a reliance on textbooks in my classes when I discovered the weekly #DitchBook chat on Twitter. By participating regularly in this chat, I rapidly accelerated my ditching journey. Although I still find the need to use textbooks in class occasionally - plus students find it useful to have reference materials in one place in our exam-heavy system - I am using them less and less. 

A new 6-week Ditch That Textbook study group will be starting soon on Twitter, using the hashtag #DitchBook. The Team Ditchbook stalwarts, including Sandy OttoKarly MouraChantell ManahanRachel MarkerSean Fahey, and of course Matt, are always happy for new ditchers to join the chat! The first chat is on June 23rd 10pm EST / June 24th 9am Bangkok time.