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!