Faculty of wonder and awe

The following article was first published in the Autumn 2017 edition of the Grammar Gazette.

Dr Sally Stephens, Director of Science

Much is written in current media about the ‘need to encourage women and girls into science’ and the waning interest in science more generally in Australia. This is not the case at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. As it has throughout our 142-year history, Science thrives at this School and the tradition of ‘inspiring wonder and awe’ continues.

Last year (2016), more than ninety per cent of our Year 12 cohort studied one or more Science subject and of that group, more than forty per cent are now undertaking a science-based university degree.

Our students are already highly motivated. We attribute the popularity of our elective science courses to two things: well-credentialed, specialist, skilled teachers who present stimulating, well-resourced, differentiated curriculum to all Year levels; and an evolving array of enriching experiential learning opportunities in settings outside the classroom and even across the world … including the captivatingly named Space Camp.

Space Camp

Aprajita Bhasin, Alison Beckey and Chloe Fleming building a robotic rover at Space Camp

Aprajita Bhasin, Alison Beckey and Chloe Fleming building a robotic rover at Space Camp

Since 1992 our participation in Space Camp has seen more than 350 Grammar girls attend an intensive hands-on learning programme in the USA during the June/July holidays. This year we had thirty-two excited students participate in what was our fourteenth ‘mission’ to Space Camp. As those who have gone before them, they were part of immersive astronaut and pilot training activities that culminated in either a challenging extended-duration simulated space mission or — with their newly acquired aeronautics and survival skills — the planning and execution of a simulated rescue mission.

Beyond the scientific learnings and insights Space Camp brings, enduring and valuable life-wide lessons abound for our young adventurers. Our girls face myriad cognitive, social and emotional challenges as they mix long-haul travel with intense learning experiences among students from all over the world: new science concepts; foreign historical, political and geographical contexts; unfamiliar cultural idioms; and being away from the comforts and security of home. Being Grammar girls, they are well-placed to absorb and process these challenges and can be rewarded with a new or modified outlook on life. Often a parent has commented that they struggle to reconcile the self-reliant, considerate young woman who returned from Space Camp with the dependent child they farewelled a mere two weeks or so earlier.

Translational Research Institute

A new initiative for 2017 is seeing four of our Year 11 students — Sarah Wilkey (11L), Jessica Weavis (11H), Caitlin McGrath (11R) and Sylvia King (11L) — being supervised by and working alongside biomedical professionals on two research projects at the Translational Research Institute (TRI). The TRI is a Brisbane-based, world-class medical research centre that combines clinical and translational research to advance laboratory discovery to application in the community.

The two real-life research projects — bone marrow macrophage responses to immune challenges; and, identifying the mechanism of a new drug combination to treat lung cancer — are bringing with them a wealth of learning opportunities for our students. It is a robust environment for expanding their skills and knowledge. It is wonderful for them to be supported by professionals in the development of real research to enrich their own theoretical and experimental research and science communication skills, while producing work that may contribute to medical advances or scientific discoveries.

International Young Physicists Tournament (IYPT)

Xuan-Nghi Pham preparing for IYPT 2017

Xuan-Nghi Pham preparing for IYPT 2017

Established in 1988 in what was the USSR, the IYPT is now one of the world’s largest and most well-known science competitions, bringing together student teams from all over the world once each year to present solutions to assigned complex physics problems. The IYPT promotes real research into authentic problems.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School Head of Physics, Mr Alan Allinson, ‘discovered’ the tournament in 1997 and since that time, has led the Australian arm of the competition. After first entering a team in 1998, he has provided once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for many Grammar girls to be part of the five-student Australian team each year.

Several months prior to the competition, IYPT organisers release seventeen complex problems that must be theoretically and experimentally researched to arrive at a presentable ‘solution’ at the competition. The research is open-ended and encourages students to utilise higher order thinking to understand challenging concepts so as to develop solutions.

The validity of the students’ research must be justified and defended against the criticism of their peers in a manner reminiscent of the processes practising professional scientists use to publish their work. All of the School’s senior Physics students complete two IYPT problems during their senior course to enable participation by all in a genuine research community.

One of the most remarkable learning outcomes of the School’s involvement in IYPT is the repression of the ‘illusion of certainty’ among our girls during laboratory investigations. Instead, scepticism and uncertainty are accepted as being right and healthy. Students are now better able to reflect on the selection, utilisation and outcomes of their strategies, and to continue working until they achieve a level of confidence in their results.

IYPT 2017 was held in Singapore from 5-12 July and was hosted by the National University of Singapore. The Australian team included Grammar girl, Xuan-Nghi Pham (12O) [pictured].

The remotely operated, robotic telescope and observatory

While the resources and initiatives activities mentioned above are for a select few, once operational later this year, our Marrapatta-based remotely operated, robotic telescope and observatory will potentially open the intrigue of astronomy to all Grammar girls.

Astronomy is probably the most ancient of sciences; however, long gone are the days when observations were reliant on the five human senses or having to peer down the eyepiece of a telescope. As will be the case for our observatory, astronomers now use sophisticated digital cameras attached to telescopes to capture images that are sent to computers for analysis. It is then up to the researcher to make sense of the captured data.

Although our students will use the telescopes to observe celestial objects that are visible with the naked eye, most of their projects will involve deep space objects, perhaps focusing on a part of the night sky that ‘appears’ empty, but is in fact, teeming with astronomic activity. With tasks such as: determine the orbital period of short period double stars and determine the combined mass of the stars; and, use spectra to measure the rotation rate of fast-rotating stars, our young astronomers can expect to be both challenged and richly rewarded.

For many, the study of astronomy evokes strong and varied emotional responses … wondering if there are other forms of life ‘out there’ and feelings of insignificance or — in contrast — warmth toward other people around the world and connectedness with ancestors. All very much in line with our 142-year history of inspiring wonder and awe within the questioning minds of Grammar girls.

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