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Osel Bangladesh / Ad Astra Academy

December 18 2017
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Osel Foundation and Ad Astra Academy are inspiring under-resourced students to discover opportunities through science and exploration. With support from National Geographic, we are working with a group of teenage girls from the Dipshikha school in southeastern Bangladesh. Through the power of the scientific method, and using tools like OpenROV, the girls are learning more about how the region's natural features form, and what those processes mean for their communities. With knowledge of landscape formation and the skills they've gained through experiential learning, the students will collaborate with NASA scientists to acquire never-before seen images of Mars, and learn more about habitable environments beyond Earth.

December 18 2017

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Mission Underway

Early in the morning, we arrived at the docks in Cox's Bazar. It was a bustling scene and the docks were already crowded with the daily traffic. Our students arrived on a bus from their school and were swiftly guided to our boat to begin our field trip - after all, we had a lot of ground (or rather water) to cover, and everyone was eager to get on the river.


Two stops were planned on our river journey. The first was in the middle of the tributary that feeds into the larger Maheshkhali Channel and then another stop by the Channel's mouth closer to the open ocean. The purpose of the field trip was to conduct science experiments to test the visibility of the water, to examine what microscopic mysteries lurk in the water, and lastly, to explore the underwater realm using a remotely operated vehicle from OpenROV. Two of the three experiments were made with recycled or easy-to-find objects that the students could reproduce on their own. In addition to the experiments, we brought along a pair of binoculars so our explorers could observe the local flora and fauna from the boat.

Before we left the dock we explained the exciting activities that were about to ensue, as this was a unique experience for most of our students. At our first stop, upstream from the larger Channel, we began our experiments. We separated the students into two groups so everyone would have something to do. The first group was responsible for water visibility measurements using a homemade Secchi disk. We lowered the disk until the students said they couldn’t see it anymore and measured how many meters down the disk got. We repeated the experiment three more times and recorded our results.

The second experiment made use of pantyhose as a filter. As the boat was transiting we dragged the pantyhose filter through the water collecting anything that came into its way to be analyzed later through microscopes. The third experiment was to explore underwater using the Trident – a beautiful remotely operated underwater vehicle able to record its findings. Despite some technical issues getting the ROV working and some mild panic when the ROV got stuck under the boat, our explorers had a blast driving and maneuvering the ROV.

We boated closer to the Channel and ran the experiments again, switching groups so all students had the chance to try everything. In the time between experiments, the students took turns using the binoculars to observe nearby cormorants and the landscape on the shore, rich with vegetation.

Overall the field trip was a success, and back at Dipshikha, we were able to analyze our data and samples that the class had collected. It turned out that our first stop had less clear water than in the Channel, and the students got to see interesting microbes collected from the river under the microscope. The best part of the field trip was seeing our students conducting the experiments on their own (without us even asking too!). Clearly they were curious and empowered to understand their world around them. We hope this drive stays with them after our workshop is over and that we’ve unveiled some tools that they can easily make and use to do science in their own backyards.

(Images from Julia DeMarines)

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After a week of intense new learning experiences, it was time for the big day: the twenty girls were now ready to make that long-anticipated call to a key member of NASA’s HiRISE instrument team and ask for images of Mars. HiRISE is the most advanced camera currently orbiting the Red Planet – it can detect objects the size of a basketball, and has seen dust devils, landslides, and rover landings during its 11 years of illustrious service.


But for the students of Dipshikha to join the exploratory fun, there was a catch! Because thousands of scientists, engineers, and students around the world frequently request their own images, there’s a lot of competition for the camera’s time. This meant that the girls would need to come up with strong scientific reasoning to make the case that their sites would improve our understanding of Mars.

Over the past few days, the students had developed the skills to analyze Google Earth and Google Mars. They virtually explored Mars and zoomed in on satellite images of Earth, astonished to discover places they had heard of but never seen. From scrolling around their local neighborhoods, to London, Saudi Arabia, and Antarctica, they were cruising far and wide! At the microscale, the girls saw new forms of life when studying field trip samples - leaves, sand grains, or murky water - under the microscopes. In this way, the microscopes extended their senses on field trips, just as spacecraft or robots do on other planets.

Back on Mars, each of the four groups had selected two target sites for imaging, mostly based on the criteria of habitability: could there have been water in the past? Are those bright patches ice, or the sun’s glare? What might have caused the channels to form? To build a set of reference points, the class spent part of the week experimenting with how landforms are made, using sand, water, wind, and any other natural phenomenon that might have played a role on Mars.

With the coordinates written down and their scientific justification in hand, the four teams went up and pitched their proposed sites to the HiRISE team. Among the requests were the base of a volcanic cliff, a sinuous channel network, mysterious lines near the north pole, and the dark edge of a crater. Our entire crew could not have been any prouder of the girls, given their transformation into world-class space explorers in just a few days! Nonetheless, the HiRISE images were not a done deal – any given request can take months to acquire, if they fit the mission’s current priorities in the first place. So for now, we all crossed our fingers and hoped for the best…

[Dipshikha school is geographically isolated, and telecommunications infrastructure – to enable a long, stable Skype call with NASA – was lacking. We are grateful to Grameenphone, Bangladesh’s largest telecommunications company, for providing temporary mobile network for our meetings across the world to happen.]

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On the morning of December 19th, the students, a supervisor from the Dipshikha school, and our entire team set off for an excursion to Cox’s Bazar, world renowned as one of the longest beaches on the planet. Many of the girls – proud as they were of this superlative distinction – had never seen this patch of coastline, or the raging waves and expansive sands that define it. Quite naturally, everyone was very excited, arriving an hour before their set departure times.


We started the day with a meditation session by the beach, where the girls were shown the art of mindfulness and led through breathing exercises. As we began to review the importance of journaling and observation during exploration, we were pleasantly surprised to see several students already taking notes on what they had observed on the short walk from the road to the beach. A number of the girls expressed how meditation helped them balance some of the inner turmoil, and candidly shared new finding from analyzing their thoughts.

Once in this reflective, observational mindset, we set up two stations: one by a nearby waterfall and one along the beach. At the waterfall, they got an up-close lesson on erosion and the important role that trees play in holding hillsides together. On the beach, they watched as tide pools and outflow channels made ripples, carved sinuous curves through the sand, and shaped the surface in ever-changing ways. It was Mars in miniature: by sketching the small landforms and comparing them to martian features, they were well-prepared to develop new hypotheses about past water on the Red Planet.

During lunch, we noticed the litter strewn across part of the beach and discussed the importance of collecting trash to keep our own environments healthy. After finishing their food, the girls collectively gathered all the packaging and tracked down a (rare) trashcan.

In the afternoon, we set off for a hike into the lush hills across that tower above the shoreline. Through a field, across a small stream, and up a steep dirt path, we continued our observations and collected samples for microscopic analysis later in the week. Even as the scorching sun weighed the adults down, the girls were fearlessly chasing one finding after another.

After a full day of exploring, observing, and hiking, the girls hopped on the bus to head home, reluctant to say farewell to their natural playground for the day. The sparkles in their eyes as they said goodbye rekindled a hope amongst all of us that, perhaps, these were the sparks of lifelong inspiration we were wishing to create…

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Our first week of classes began by meeting the 20 girls who would be participating in the Ad Astra / Osel Foundation curriculum over the next several months. As our crew of scientists, teachers, and translators entered the classroom, it was clear that this would be a teaching experience unlike any other: where were the distracted troublemakers, the disruptive pranksters, the vacant stares of boredom? Instead of these classroom staples, we found bright eyes and open notebooks, pencils at the ready.


While this quiet obedience would cause fits of jealousy among most teachers - our students were no doubt the best-behaved teenagers we'd ever met - it masks an underlying problem. The standard educational experience in Bangladesh - as in most places around the world - is centered on memorization and repetition rather than understanding and questioning. We quickly found that a fear of being wrong, or even of being different, eclipsed individual interests. A synchronized repetition of the eight planets was no problem, but when asked which planet they most wanted to visit, or if they thought any might host aliens, we were greeted with quiet giggles and averted gazes.

It was our goal to introduce a different way of thinking - one where questions are valued more than answers and individuality is celebrated. Exploration is the perfect tool for this task: when swept up by the natural urge to climb the next hill or peer around the next rock, we use our senses to learn new things, unwittingly becoming scientists in the process. It’s an addicting, empowering feeling, and one we hope to share with our seemingly timid students.

The first order of business was to unveil the power of the scientific method – an engine of discovery powered by questions. We used a simple experiment testing our reaction times based on sight, touch, and hearing: through peels of laughter and furrowed brows, sight came out on top, and the cycle of questions, hypotheses, experiments, observations, and analyses became real.

And so, equipped with the tools to turn exploration into knowledge, we ventured out to the hills, rivers, and beaches of Cox’s Bazar…

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Expedition Background

Southeastern Bangladesh is defined by water: ancient rivers built and carved its lush hills, a dense network of rivers ebb and flow with seasonal rains, and the Indian Ocean laps at the sandy shore. And yet, most young people in the area - particularly girls in rural communities whose education is often compromised by financial challenges - lack the tools or background to appreciate the natural processes at work and fully recognize how they may influence daily life.


As a team of scientists and educators, we're working in partnership with the Osel Foundation and National Geographic Education with a class of girls at a school near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Over the course of several months (2017-2018), the Ad Astra Academy curriculum shares the excitement of scientific discovery and provides the tools for a future of intellectual independence and educational advancement.

It starts with the fundamental human need to explore, a drive we often don't realize we possess. We will take the students on field trips to take advantage of this instinct and understand the natural phenomena behind the regional landscape. Equipped with the power of the scientific method, the girls will then translate their knowledge to Mars and request never-before-seen, high-resolution images of the Red Planet from a NASA spacecraft. In the process, we hope to empower our students with the confidence to create new knowledge and provide a spark of inspiration to light a fire of curiosity.

What will the girls discover, from the waters of local rivers to the ice caps of Mars? What will they teach us? And how will we all grow in the process? Follow along for updates to find out!

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So excited to see how this progresses!