Monday, 13 October 2014

ASTA Science Teachers Exchange—JAPAN 2014 recap

The 2014 delegates (from left) Danielle Spencer, Gary Tilley, Leah Taylor, Sarah Chapman, Vic Dobos and Robyn Aitken

The 2014 Exchange is officially over, with all four teachers and ASTA's treasured President and CEO back on Aussie soil.

ASTA would like to recognise and thank the Australia—Japan Foundation and the Sony Science
Teachers Association for their generous support of the Exchange. We would also like to sincerely thank the staff at all the schools and institutes visited during the Exchange; the delegates were touched by your hospitality and grateful for all that you shared with them.

For a recap of the 2014 Exchange you can download the ASTA Science Teachers Exchange—JAPAN publication here.

Read about the 2014 Exchange at

Monday, 6 October 2014

Day 6: Getting the most out of our final day at JAXA, Sensojiji and Akihabara - post by Robyn Aitken

We had a beautiful blue sky for our final day in Tokyo. In the morning we travelled to Tsukuba, the science super-city about an hour and a half out of Tokyo to visit the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Most of the residents of Tsukuba are employed in science industries, and two thousand of those people work at JAXA.

ASTA delegation outside JAXA
Try as we might, we couldn't think of a way to fit this in our luggage. Maybe next time.

So many activities are carried out at JAXA: research into docking facilities in space; improving rocket launchers; developing and testing materials that can survive the harsh conditions in space; and investigating the effect of space on the physiology of the human body and developing ways of countering the negative effects. (The findings of the latter are not only useful for astronauts but also for the elderly.) JAXA has also been observing volcanic activity and the impact of the recent Mt Ontake eruption in Japan by using earth observation satellites.

ASTA team at Jaxa
We were on our best behaviour, though Vic just couldn't help trying to touch things. (I am in the middle at the front.)

From JAXA we travelled to the Sensojuji Temple in Asakusa and learnt about the correct way to cleanse for good health from our guide, Michigo. There were many markets in front of the temple and the whole group used their time well to buy souvenirs and presents for family. The last part of the day was a quick trip to the Akihabara area, famous for it's electronics shops.

Gary Tilley at Sensojuji Temple
Gary warded off any post-trip bugs by performing a ritual cleansing at Sensojuji Temple.
Akihabara offers all the latest in technology.

We arrived back at our hotel with many bags, and spent the evening packing, and repacking, as we tried to fit our shopping into our cases, including a heap of great car kits to demonstrate energy in the classroom.

The ASTA team wrapped up our trip with serious shopping.
Can you pick who did the most shopping?
Car kit
These fantastic kits will be great to use in our Science classrooms.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Day 5: Jelly beans and bullet trains - post by Leah Taylor

Hello, I am Leah Taylor, Curriculum Coordinator at St Anthony’s Parish Primary in Wanniassa ACT. When I found out I would be coming over to Japan on the ASTA Science teacher exchange I was beyond excited. I feel privileged to be able to share my passion for Science while over here as well as to learn from my Japanese and Australian peers.

Takasago Elementary School 

The day began with what has become a daily ritual - walk to the Mango Tree Café to collect our morning coffee before meeting up for breakfast. We have been fortunate to be seated at a corner table each morning looking over the koi pond and waterfalls. The garden setting provides a wonderful and serene start to what eventually become jam-packed and always mind-blowing days.

Coi pond
Gorgeous koi fish were our breakfast companions each day.

At 8.25am we met in the hotel foyer ready to board our bus bound for Takasago Elementary School. The school is situated in Saitama City. Founded in 1871, Takasago Elementary School is the oldest school in Saitama City. The school is also one of the largest Elementary schools, with 870 students.

Takasago Elementary School is a leader in educational research and regularly publishes research on pedagogy within a variety of disciplines. They hold an annual public forum on their research each February and have been doing so for the past 43 years. Teachers from all over Japan attend these research presentations. When we asked the Principal about his secret to such ‘inquiry into practice’ by the staff, he identified that the embedded culture of pedagogical inquiry was a significant contributor to new staff continuing this tradition.

As soon as we arrived, we dropped our bags and were whisked away to the Science teaching laboratory. One thing that has surprised us during this trip is that every elementary school has a fully resourced Science teaching Laboratory. The lesson by Ms Ai Izawa had already commenced, so we crept in and moved to the back of the room. The lesson was about land subsidence and erosion. Students were asked to make predictions about where they thought the best place was to build a house on a mountainside. Students were given ¥1,000,000 to buy land, build their home and erect additional structural supports to keep the house safe. A student from each group made predictions about where the best place for their home would be and about what they needed to protect their home from the flowing river.  After students tested their hypothesis, they presented their findings to the rest of the class.
As well as seeing the Takasago Science class, we also had the pleasure of sitting in on part of a music lesson. The children sang so beautifully and when I looked around the room I noticed I was not the only one with a tear in my eye. At every school we have seen during this trip, we have been struck by how beautifully they all sing. Their music teachers create some of the most amazing arrangements and their students all sing those arrangements with both passion and perfection. Before I came to Japan I tended to only associate Japan with karaoke singing, but the amazing choral arrangements by the Japanese music teachers and their students has given me a much richer impression. However, the business of the visit was Science not music and it was time for me to prepare for my lesson.

Leah Taylor with her Takasago Elementary School students
Japanese students can be reserved at first, but they quickly come out of their shells.

My lesson was about adaptations in Australian animals. Following the standard slides on cute and cuddly Australian animals, we got into the fun part of the lesson, the jellybean game. Students had to take turns at eating jellybeans. The rules to the game were as follows:
  • No one is allowed to talk
  • Students may only take one jellybean at a time and they must eat it
  • The game ended when everyone in the group refuses to eat any more jellybeans
What the students didn’t know was that one colour jellybean was coated in ‘Stop-Bite’, making the jellybean bitter. This lesson mimicked what happens in the wild with animals that have mutated to either have a bitter taste or a poison. Like the jellybeans, those animals that are not eaten will be able to survive.

Leah Taylor teaching a class at Takasago Elementary School
Leah Taylor teaching a class at Takasago Elementary School
Stop-Bite works just as well on jelly beans as it does on fingernails - as the kids in my class found out!

The children eagerly dug their hands into the bag of jellybeans and ate them one by one. Gradually, we started to see the screwed up faces of those who had selected a red jellybean. Even Mr Asami Shigeo, the principal joined in with a group and remained very composed as he bit into one of the painted jellybeans.

Following a delicious lunch it was Garry Tilley’s turn to teach a class. He treated students to a visual montage of surf and sand and answered students’ questions about Australia. His lesson then moved to looking at the Red Centre and iron ore deposits. Students were able to look at iron ore samples alongside other rock samples as a comparison. The students were excited and curious about Australia and asked Gary many questions about dangerous animals, types of surfing, and plants in Australian deserts. Gary happily answered students’ questions and by the end of the lesson, the usually reserved Japanese students were excitedly putting their hands up.

An interesting thing we noticed was that when students were selected to speak to the class, they stood behind their chair. This occurred whether the student was asking a question or responding to a question.

Gary Tilley teaching a class at Takasago Elementary School
Gary Tilley with his class at Takasago Elementary School
Gary's class was a huge success. It's great to be able to teach Japanese students about some of the wonders of Australia.
The lessons were followed by teacher discussions from everything ranging from the submission of lesson plans to the City’s Board of Studies, to the use of textbooks, to the resourcing of Science education across Japan. Mr Asami Shigeo noted that Japan did not have any natural resources and in order to maintain its economic prosperity the nation has to invest in its human capital. The Japanese government recognizes the importance of innovation, especially innovation in technology. Science is viewed as essential for supporting that innovation. Every Japanese elementary school devotes three hours a week to the teaching of science and the teachers regularly conference to develop rigorous lessons. We were grateful to the principal and staff for giving us such insight into education in Japan.

Tokyo Railway Museum 

After we were farewelled by our hosts at Takasago Elementary School, we ventured on to the Tokyo Railway Museum. The Railway Museum is situated in Onari, Saitama City and was built as the centerpiece of the JR East 20th Anniversary Memorial Project. Spread over 4 levels, including a rooftop, the museum is home to a range of exhibits, from early steam engines, including the imperial train, to the super-modern bullet train. The museum also houses a number of simulators. I had a chance to drive one of the famous bullet trains. My task was to take the train from one station to another. I did manage to get the train to the required station, although it was a little slower than we normally expect the bullet train to travel, and I didn’t quite get the train all the way to the station. It was an interesting experience to drive a train through an interpreter.

Leah Taylor driving a train at the Takyo Railway Museum.
Maybe I shouldn't apply for a job as a train conductor just yet...

In the evening, we attended a farewell dinner with the Sony Science Teachers Association, our hosts for this year’s visit. It was wonderful to see so many teachers and people associated with Sony Education at the dinner. Our many ‘interpreters’ were busily supporting conversations between Australian and Japanese teachers. The evening was a great finale to what has been an amazing opportunity to gain a little insight into Science teaching in Japan.

With much sadness we farewelled our ‘Japan Mum’ and interpreter, Keiko who was invaluable during our tours of schools and greater Tokyo. Her insight into the Japanese school system and background in education was invaluable as we delivered our lessons. We were all grateful for her support and occasional suggestions to help our lessons flow and be received well by the Japanese students. We also said farewell to Setsuko from Sony Education. Setsuko had joined us at each of the schools and often acted as an interpreter during the dinners and meetings when one interpreter was not enough.

This experience in Japan has been amazing. I have gained greater insight into teaching science in Japan and the Japanese school system more broadly. I am so very grateful to the Australian Japan Foundation and ASTA for this fantastic opportunity and I look forward to sharing this experience with my peers in Australia.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Day 4: From SONY to Science Super Schools, Japan leads the way into the future of science - post by Gary Tilley

A pond in Tokyo
A wetter, cooler morning, though still beautiful.

On Wednesday we all awoke to the sound of rain, which was a welcome relief to the sticky atmosphere of Tokyo's early autumn. I enjoyed an early coffee at our little corner shop and watched the cosmopolitan black-suited business brigade make their way to their offices in massive droves. There are so many people here and they all move in such an orderly and polite way, and keep their enormous city clean and tidy. Everything works, and it works all the time! It is an amazing city full of productive life.

Our group made its way down to the international headquarters of SONY as VIP guests to go behind the scenes for a special showcasing of the emerging technology SONY are producing at "The Square". Here, we were treated to a display that left us truly awestruck by the technology that is out there. SONY has supported teacher education for quite some time and it was a privilege to see their cutting edge work.

Robyn Aitken outside SONY HQ
Robyn made sure we were in the right place.
We witnessed a promo of SONY's video work in 4K across four 200inch integrated screens that blew away preconceptions of quality of image and definition. Vic loved the fast cars that seemed to be entering the same space we were currently occupying! The mountain scenes made you a part of the spectacle and other sports appeared to be happening whilst you were on court with world famous players. How they did it is beyond me, but it impressed everyone.

We were then given shown some famous musicians playing...including Carlos Santana alongside his signed guitar! That impressed many, but I liked the ukulele of Jake Shimaloukuro, whilst others preferred Michael Jackson or Beyoncé. The real standout was a singer called Curiosity. The reason she stood out was because she sang in a 3D theatre, where she felt so close and so loud that the wind blowing through her hair hit us along with the smell of her breath. We think that was among the first 4D concerts. Remarkable!

As if these displays hadn't left us speechless, Danielle was given the controls of the Play Station 4 and managed to release 15 or so little virtual reality robots who become so interfering we were forced to pat them on the head, kick them out of the way, and eventually Vic had to vacuum them up. They were ever so cute, but Vic did have a job to do!

We walked through several stunning displays of recent SONY films where original props could be handled. We took a liking to Peter Parker's Spider-Man outfit, and Gary was about to try it on when Vic discovered some Breaking Bad action and wanted to start putting some of the very real props to some "questionable" use!

We moved into the football stadium, which had 3D cut outs of football players shooting for goal on the synthetic grass pitch and goals ready to receive the ball. 4k film was being used in the stadium and it put the spectator in amongst the players where they could see, with clarity, the expressions on the faces of players, and see and hear the audience. This sporting experience is bound to be state of the art very soon.

The SONY Electronics Cafe took everyone's fancy, with cameras of all sizes and tablets that could survive underwater and connect to any other device imaginable. A small ball-like speaker shook the building when connected to a smart phone. A smartband and its app made a pedometer look ordinary and when you connected that to your smart watch, you had the world as your oyster! All seven of us put our resumes in to SONY just to be with the new technology.

Following a lovely lunch in SONY's staff cafeteria, we moved on to the Ulrawa Dairidi Super Science Girls High School. Some students presented their winning ISEF entries and we had a valuable discussion with the students and teachers about their science work. We watched a lesson conducted by our very own Sarah Chapman, who wowed the audience with her expertise and style.

Sarah Chapman teaching a class at Ulwara Super Science Girls High School
One of Australia's own Super Science Girls, Sarah conducted a fantastic, hands-on lesson at Ulwara.

Ulwara students conducting the Skittles experiment
The Skittles experiment
The universal language of science meets the universal language of Skittles!

The school, whilst very different to ours in Australia, worked to its national standards while also being a special Super Science School for girls, set up to encourage girls into science and engineering. Base on the figures we were shown it was working very well, with high levels of science university options being taken up by its students.

The ASTA team with staff from Ulwara
A class at Ulwara
The dedicated staff at Ulwara give their students the tools and support they need to pursue careers in science.

By evening the rain had totally cleared and we were able to see some of the famous department stores of Downtown Tokyo. We managed to resist the $7,100 scarves and ties and shirts well into the hundreds of dollars. Beautiful to look at, lovely to hold but...well you know the rest! Stunning but not for me.

For dinner, we found a great little eatery where they served beer in a glass boot! No matter how hard the girls tried those glass slippers just did not fit. Danielle tried to 'boot up' her computer and Leah was offered 'a boot in the…' but refused. Finally, we had to give Robin 'the boot' when her jokes got too corny. Talk turned to the politics of science education, and the needs of our science community. Plans and strategies were made and forgotten by those with too many boots to deal with.

It was one of those days you can only dream of. The encounter with technology of the most extraordinary kind, students and staff politely and productively working to their best and setting a shining example to all teachers, our Sarah showing the way with another one of her great demonstration lessons, and pumpkin ice cream to finish. Twenty out of ten, we all agreed. ASTA has done a great job making this happen and we are doing our best to experience another cultures systems and see ways that we can improve our practice, engage our students and the broader community with science and science communication. Way to go team!

Tokyo at night
Tokyo at night.