Student Perspectives on Outreach Abroad
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Stephanie Finnvik
SPS Reporter
Carthage College, Kenosha, WI | Stephanie's website
  • Meet Stephanie
  • June 6, 2011
  • June 18, 2011
  • June 24, 2011
  • June 28, 2011
  • July 5, 2011
  • July 19, 2011
  1. Stephanie Finnvik is a member of the Society of Physics Students chapter at Carthage College. She has a unique opportunity to work at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands this summer on an international outreach project. Stephanie will be sending SPS periodic updates on her adventures, so check back later for more entries.
  Stephanie Finnvik and some local scenery
  Stephanie Finnvik

Stephanie is starting her senior year at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Double majoring in Physics and Spanish, she is also participating in Carthage's dual-degree Engineering program. Interested in many things, she didn't settle on physics as a major until her second year.

She participated in Carthage's microgravity team and, in the summer of 2010 Stephanie did research at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. In addition to research, Stephanie is involved in Women's Lacrosse, Students in Free Enterprise (S.I.F.E.), the Society of Physics Students, Residence Life, Juggling Club, Alpha Chi Omega, and Habitat for Humanity.


Information from Carthage College Student Voices.



  Stephanie is working in the Netherlands at the University of Leiden, just outside of Amsterdam.
  Stephanie is working in the Netherlands at the University of Leiden, just outside of Amesterdam.

Hoi! Welkom op mijn blog! Hi and welcome to my blog!
My name is Stephanie and I am a student at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I’m majoring in physics and Spanish, and my goal for this summer was to find an adventure where I could actively use both of my interests. Fortunately, I have found myself in the Netherlands at the University of Leiden, in the city of Leiden, just outside of Amsterdam. I am here working with a program called Universe Awareness, internationally headquartered at the University.

For a little background: Universe Awareness (UNAWE) is an international outreach programme that, “uses the beauty and grandeur of the Universe to inspire young children and encourage them to develop an interest in science and technology, while reinforcing the idea of global citizenship and tolerance – to show children that they are part of an international community,” as declared by UNAWE. The resources are open to everyone, but aimed at children ages 4 to 10 years, especially those from underprivileged communities. It is endorsed by the IAU (International Astronomical Union) and became a cornerstone project of the UN International Year of Astronomy 2009, like the Galileoscope. Currently, there are approximately 40 different countries actively participating in the astronomy outreach initiatives of UNAWE. As for my involvement in the program, I am working at the University under Pedro Russo, the UNAWE International Project Manager and the IYA2009 Secretariat. It has been an honor, to say the least, to be working with him and the rest of the UNAWE team.

My job right now involves a few different tasks. UNAWE is currently working on a new website and I am fortunate to have a big part in it. For the last week and a half we have been going through all of the material available and organizing it for the new site. One of the cool things about UNAWE is that they provide online outreach materials, resources, lesson plans and ideas that are freely available to all, from teachers to astronomers to the interested public and community.
I am also working on the writing and development of education activities in Spanish and English. This is very cool. Back home, I know that when my SPS group hosts a night for kids and performs demos, we sometimes have more fun than the kids (like with the Van der Graaf). One of the first projects I am helping with here is developing a board game for kids themed around a photon traveling from the Sun to us, here on planet Earth. Pedro has taken us to toy and game stores for inspiration and it has been very fun working on brainstorming ideas for the game.

A few days after arriving in Leiden, I had the opportunity to attend the Astronomy and Space Science Workshop and Meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. At this meeting, Universe Awareness was in part being publicly acknowledged for receiving a 1.9 million euro grant to be implemented over three years in six different countries.
Before the event, amateur astronomers were outside in the mall with telescopes allowing passersby to observe the Sun. During the event, there were speakers that spanned expertise in multiple topics: radio telescopes, ESA (European Space Agency), ESO (European Southern Observatory), and the E-ELT (European – Extremely Large Telescope). I was definitely honored to be among such prestigious speakers and audience members.

George Miley, the Vice President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), was one of the speakers at the meeting and is, in a way, the ‘father’ of UNAWE. As I am still learning about the program, it was a great experience to hear him talk. He is also at the University and has been kind to let me use his office at times – pretty darn cool. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and previous President of the Royal Society, was also a speaker and quite the character, with many quick responses and ideas. “No beachfront property there!” was one of his many good lines, in response to a question from the audience about the methane lake on Titan.

One of the greatest points I though he made was simply that, “We are on a very special planet and on it at a very special time.” In the past century, so many things have been discovered and realized.  We can even launch projectiles out into space for goodness sake! This said, I will be honest and say that I was a little disappointed with his future outlook on space travel being better as a private venture – a ‘spectator sport’. With public ventures there must be no risk, but with private, there can be high risk – it’s at your own expense. I do understand that point, but really, what would we be without NASA? Check out this NASA is awesome video.

During the course of the talks, the difference between space science spending in Europe and the US was brought up. One speaker said that the US space budget is ~4 times higher than the European, if expressed per capita. Not to go crazy on a NASA-loving rant, but I find this disappointing (watch the video linked above of how NASA is awesome).  I know I am a little skewed in my opinion, but NASA has done great things over the course of a relatively short amount of time for humanity. We are very fortunate as SPS students and, for some, attendees of a Space Grant affiliated school, that NASA insists that a portion of their budget be spent on education ventures. I have been among the student recipients and have had opportunities to do some pretty cool things.

On a final note, no I do not know a smidge of the Dutch language, or Nederland, as they say here. Nonetheless, every person I have met has been nothing but friendly and welcoming. The majority of people speak perfect English too, you just have to ask. It has been quite an adventure to say the least. There are so many cool things to explore. The great things I’ve found so far include stroopwafels, which are a traditional Dutch treat of two wafer-like pancakes with caramel syrup in the middle – so delicious. I also got to watch Spain win the EuroCup with all of the European excitement and devotion that comes with ‘football’.

For more, you can visit my blog site for the summer, If you have any questions or comments, send me a message too!


Einstein, Stop Telling God What to Do

  Sir Roger Penrose with some hand drawn transparencies.
  Sir Roger Penrose with some hand drawn transparencies.

First, Sir Roger Penrose is ridiculously awesome.  He used hand drawn transparencies for his talk that I attended.  He is almost 80, which makes him pretty cool too; he’s got wisdom.  He opened up his talk by reminiscing about the encounters and debates of Bohr and Einstein.

Sir Penrose could be compared with those big names like Einstein and Hawking.  Currently an emeritus professor at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, his list of lifetime achievements and research will be sure to last for a long time.  A brief list of some of the things he’s done:

  • Reinterpreting general relativity to prove that black holes can form dying stars.
  • Developing the Twistor Theory, a novel way to look at the structure of space-time.
  • Creating Penrose tiling with Stephen Hawking.

I recommend taking the time to read up on these topics, but for now I’ll only discuss what he came to talk about.
Last week, he came to Leiden University and gave a talk entitled, “Are we Able to See Through the Big Bang, into Another World?”  There were over 1,000 attendees, and some even had to leave and watch from another room because there were so many people!

So our universe is 13.700.000.000 years old.  Penrose addressed the questions, What happens after our Sun dies?  Will there be another Big Bang and more to follow?  To give you just a brief summary of his thoughts and theories, what he talked about was completely new – and different than what he’s said or claimed before.  From the BBC Horizon:
“Sir Roger Penrose has changed his mind about the Big Bang.  He now imagines an eternal cycle of expanding universes where matter becomes energy and back again in the birth of new universes and so on and so on.”

He also doesn’t believe in inflation and stakes his claims with the use of the string theory and quantum mechanics.  His hypothesis is that, “Mass simply fades out on a large time scale.”  Throughout his presentation he followed some statements with amusing responses like, “To get there, it’s just a mathematical trick really.”  He was quite the speaker and you have to understand that he did not use any calculations or any real charts or data at all to support these pretty bold statements.  He continued slipping in little comments like, “They have a long time to do it,” and “Eternity is no big deal… Ok, well, it’s forever… but who cares?”

Penrose focused on how there is a conflict with quantum superposition – large objects cannot be in superposition.   To study this, his group decided to take a look at the quantum superposition of a mirror.  UC Santa Barbara and Leiden University developed a mirror less than 20μm in diameter.  The mirror is cooled to less than 100μK to allows high sensitive measurements by reducing vibrations and creating good optics.  The study is currently in progress.

Returning back to the ‘big picture’ of our universe, he outlined the idea that we are traveling through a cycle where entropy increases as time increases, and then goes back to near zero and starts over again.  One of his most comical points was, “It’s really hard to bore a photon.”  Funny statement, but he did give two reasons:

  1. They don’t experience anything.
  2. Since they’re massless particles, they don’t really register the passage of time.
  Penrose transparency.
  One of the hand-drawn transparencies.

He concluded with the reminder that, if this is true, it will be a very “boring era” to be waiting around for this change in energy, but not to worry because, “we won’t be around for it.”

In regards to my thoughts on his talk, I don’t know if I agree with him or not.  As a physicist, I suppose that I should take a side, but I think I need some time to think through his thought process.

Back to my ‘reality’ of work: I am very excited to be looking into developing a national node of Universe Awareness (UNAWE) in the US.  For a pilot program, I think it would be awesome to have some sort of bus tour the nation as a mobile tool to share astronomy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) with kids who might otherwise not have the opportunity.  Similar to IYA2009 and the IAU’s GalileoMobile, which is traveling across South America.  I am still in the development phase, and am working on applying for support.  If you are interested, or think your school would like to help out or be a ‘stop’, send me a message.  Example activities include ‘star parties’ or observing nights and hands-on lessons, like learning about the rotation of the planets and so on.  The ultimate goal is to develop a network for sustainable programs and be able to provide educational materials and tools to volunteers like SPS students and educators.

ESA and Sprinkles in Space

  One of the Hubble Solar Panels on Display at the ESA.
  One of the Hubble Solar Panels on display at the ESA.

ESA (European Space Agency), you could say, is Europe’s ‘version’ of NASA.  According to the ESA website,
Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.
ESA is currently compromised of 18 member states, with Romania soon to be the 19th, and has cooperation agreements with many other countries.

Today, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar talk at the largest ESA establishment, located in the Netherlands.  Upon arriving we obtained visitor badges, which reminded me of the excitement I felt when I got my temporary NASA employee badge for participating in flight week at Microgravity University at Ellington Field in Texas.  The talk, Exploring Extrasolar Worlds, by Giovanna Tinetti, a member of the Royal Society and astronomer at the University College London, discussed the use of the transit method to detect exoplanets. 

Approximately 560 exoplanets have been found thanks to Kepler, CoRoT and other instruments.  There are more than 1200 planetary candidates to be analyzed as well, with 68 of them being Earth-sized and 662 Neptune-sized. Although I am less knowledgeable in the field of astronomy, it was a very interesting talk.  I think that exoplanet studies are becoming very popular and I have met multiple master’s and PhD students at the University that are working on cool projects studying them.  After the talk, the discussion sparked the question, and a little bit of a debate, over “WEhat is the best method of studying exoplanets?”, as each has its pros and cons.  I’ll leave this up to the astronomers to argue!

While at ESA, we also had lunch, which of course was followed by coffee for an hour.  We then toured the ESA facilities and offices.  They have a long corridor with displays about various missions and projects as well as models of some telescopes. Sorry for the lack of other pictures, but my camera died unfortunately!

Changing focus a little bit, I know that more recently people have questioned whether we should continue with human space exploration or focus more on technological advances for exploring our Universe.  Being a little biased, I will admit, this disappoints me.   I do believe that astronauts and cosmonauts are some of the coolest people out there.  They represent so much, and all of the astronauts I’ve been fortunate to meet have been way above any expectations.  I have been so honored each time.

André Kuipers is a Dutch astronaut, and the first Dutch astronaut to return to space.  From the end of November 2011 to June 2012, he is scheduled to visit the International Space Station.  So cool!  I would suggest that all SPS chapters request a ‘call from space’ from Kuipers, but unfortunately ESA is only offering this to European science centers and organizations.

One of the typical Dutch foods is hagelslag, or chocolate sprinkles.  They usually put it on buttered bread.  In an article in the Holland Herald, Kuipers tells how they can be a ‘bit troublesome’ in space.  Here’s a short excerpt from the article :
Astronauts can also choose bonus foods for themselves or to take up as gifts.  “I want to take Dutch cheeses, treacle waffles, Haugue toffees and liquorice,” says Kuipers.  “On my first flight I had to eat all the liquorice because my colleagues didn’t like it!”

I bet he won’t be bringing a lot of liquorice this time.  I think if I were to go into space, I would bring tater tot hotdish to share if there were no restraints – I am a Minnesotan!  What would you bring?

Next to the ESA facilities is the SpaceExpo.  I have yet to visit, but from driving past it and reading about it, I imagine that it is something like NASA Space Center Houston.  I’m really looking forward to that trip. 

In summary, my visit to ESA was a great experience.   It was an awesome opportunity to see what’s happening in space science in Europe.  The time to sit with ESA employees at lunch and learn about what they’re doing was really cool too.  It’s great to find yourself among fellow scientists and meet people who are doing what you hope to do in the future that are just as excited as you.  No need to worry though, NASA has my loyalty!

Einstein-Pauling Cup

For this entry, I’ve decided to talk a little bit more about being a student and living abroad at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  If you ever study abroad, be sure to get involved in whatever activities you enjoy and any international student group.  At Leiden, the ISN, or International Student Network, is more than welcoming and there to help.  Even though it is the summer, the science departments are full of research.  Always be willing to try new things too – except maybe you don’t have to eat the herring in celebration of the fishing season…  Be adventurous too.  Yesterday I tried canoe-polo with the student kayaking and canoe club, LEVITAS.  I even scored!

Being at Leiden University for graduate studies is something I would highly recommend to just about anyone.  While here, I have been fortunate to attend both a PhD defense and degree award and a master’s degree award ceremony; the masters defense is not open to the public or guests.  The process is very traditional; I think it’s great that they’ve kept the history alive.  All students that graduate from upper level studies in the sciences sign their name on the wall in a special room.  My friend who graduated with her master’s in astronomy just this last week got to do so.  It was really cool to get to see her sign the wall (and be able to go in the room!), as her signature now lies among others like Nelson Mandela and the royal family (some are just honored ‘signature’ guests and not necessarily science related).

When graduating from the University with your master’s or doctoral degree, the ceremony is held in an old building in town that is from the early days of the University.  There is a lot of history and it’s neat that the students can be honored in the same fashion as those did at the beginning of the University days.

Changing subjects a little again, I think we can all agree that there are stereotypes about how science majors are or should be, especially related to social interactions.  At Carthage, the physics students are quite unusual, I would say, with regard to these assumptions.  We are very active and interactive, and more than half of the students are female.  In the department at Leiden, the ratio of males to females in the sciences is more typical.  You may see this as trivial, but this is the first place that I have been to where there are, literally, more heren (male) than dames (female) bathrooms.  Who knew there was such a place in the world?!

There are a few things that I would like to bring back to my school after being here.  One is the coffee breaks.  They don’t have to be nearly as long or frequent as they tend to be here, as I think that would not be accepted in the American work culture, but it is a great time to get everyone in the department to mingle.  The conversations are great too, as you get to learn about what’s going on with both the students and faculty.  Let’s be honest too, when you’re in college, free anything, whether food or coffee, typically gets people to show up.  Similarly, the science communication department holds monthly ‘paper talks’ with a free lunch during the school year.  It’s like a book club but for scientists!

At Carthage, each spring we have a softball game among the science departments for the ‘Einstein-Pauling Cup’, and it is good fun with a picnic in the park.  Tomorrow, the astronomy department here is having their summer barbeque and picnic and there is a soccer (or fútbol) tournament that I will be playing in.  This also includes teams of faculty; never underestimate their skills.  I enjoy these kinds of events and recommend that, if you don’t already have one, you have some kind of competition against other departments at your school.  Just make sure that physics dominates!


Spaceballs and the 4th of July

  Fun with Sparklers

First, you should check out the new Universe Awareness site here.  It’s officially live!  On it, you will find an immense amount of information about UNAWE and a number of educational resources for children learning astronomy.  I’m really excited about it.  If you have any comments about it, please send them because we’d love to hear from you.

The other day was the astronomy department BBQ and fútbol tournament that I previously mentioned.  There were ten teams in total and we played 10 minute games of 4 v. 4.  It was fun and great weather, but definitely very tiring.  We ended up winning one out of four games and got our butts handed to us by the faculty team.  I hope this doesn’t get me into trouble, but faculty members often seem to have athletic skills that you would never expect them to have based on knowing them in the classroom – so deceiving. Nonetheless, it was a ton of fun.  Our team name was Spaceballs and other teams had great names like Let's Kick Uranus -- science people are so funny. 

After the game I headed to the BBQ.  No student should ever turn down free food!  We could choose all different kinds of meat and kabobs and then cooked it ourselves on various grills throughout the yard.  There were some salads and breads and, of course, a huge vat of ‘peanut sauce’.  It's seriously haunting me.  If there is one thing that I will not miss from the Netherlands, it is this peanut sauce that they use like ketchup (or ranch, if you’re from the Midwest) with fries.  There was also a table where people were making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, courtesy of the chemistry department.  

For the 4th of July, we had a picnic potluck and celebrated with everyone.  It was a neat experience to share with international students.  It was a great success too – we found sparklers to play with and took some cool pictures.  We had to wait until about 11pm to play with them though, because the sun doesn’t set fully until after 10pm.  Marissa made a cake and I helped her decorate the flag.  It turned out very well if I don’t say so myself!

Penrose transparency.
The impressive flag cake  

In the office (because I’m actually supposed to be working here too…), developing each national UNAWE node is a continuous project.  For UNAWE Netherlands, I visited a museum in the Hague, a city about 15 minutes by train from Leiden, to discuss prospective programs and collaborative activities.  We also had a tour of some of the exhibits and archived items.  It was so cool!  The museum had warehouse-type rooms for different types of items.  There was so much stuff I can't even list all of the things we saw. There were many, many head dresses, canoes, pottery and other goods from the Inuits; multiple types of swords; lots of tables and other beautiful wood carvings; and even full Samurai body gear (about 200 years old), complete with a mustache on the outside of the helmet.

In the biology room there were many different taxidermied animals.  A baby zebra, baby giraffe, alligator, crocodile (over 5 meters long!), eagles, camels ...pretty much you name it and it was there - even an okapi!  They had closets full of monkeys too, and there were a few 'upright' ones, some that looked really creepy.  I would not want to be walking through that area in the dark!

There were also other animal parts and skeletal structures, like a mammoth femur bone, and human skeletons that consisted of bones from numerous people (very strange). Apparently they have 80,000 bugs too.

We also saw lots and lots of cameras (covering the whole history of taking pictures), typewriters, computers, and other mechanical items and mechanisms.  There was also a document signed by Marie Curie about the dosage of Radium!  It was really neat to have such a behind-the-scenes look.  I have never really thought about all the items that museums have in the ‘background’.

  The Spaceballs Team
I’m extremely excited about the potential of the UNAWE US program.  Seeing all the successes of other national nodes, I believe that we can do the same.  I have read about various successful projects around the world, including the GalileoMobile.  According to its website, “GalileoMobile is a traveling science education project that brings astronomy closer to young people across South America… By organizing astronomy-related activities in schools and villages, we aim at fostering a will of learning through the exciting wonders of our Universe.”  Over a period of two months, the vehicle traveled to some of the most rural locations in South America, bringing astronomy to everyone through fun activities, demonstrations and observations.  From this, I came up with the idea of a traveling exhibit that would tour the 48 continental US capital cities, and bring astronomy education across the US.  Thanks to Pedro and Maya (who is also an American intern), we applied to the ChangeMakers grant.  You can read the full proposal here.  Voting will start September 28th and we’d appreciate your support!  I think it would be great to have activities at the stops with local SPS chapters, so if you’re interested, please send me an e-mail!


Last Shuttle Launch and My Last Week in Leiden

  Playing a game with the UNAWE team.

“As a former astronaut and the current NASA Administrator, I’m here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success – and failure is not an option.” – Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, National Press Club, July 1, 2011

July 8th marked NASA’s last scheduled shuttle launch.  Members from my Microgravity Team at Carthage College – Kim, Amber, Steve and Professor Crosby, were able to travel to the launch at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, thanks to our project’s Principal Investigator, Rudy Werlink, a research engineer at KSC.  Check out the Carthage article– they had a really cool tour.  You can find more articles on their adventures here, here....and here too.

Here is a cool video from a contest for the 50th anniversary of the most recent Yuri's Night celebrations from April.  It's pretty cool (and short, so take the time to watch the whole thing!)  I have high hopes for the future of NASA – as quoted earlier, failure is not an option.

Back to the Netherlands…There’s a website called Buien Radar, and it gives you at-the-moment radar so you can see just when the rain is coming and going.  When introduced to it, I was told that it would probably be the most useful site I would use while in the Netherlands. Over the past few days that has most definitely been the case!  The other day it rained for 21 hours straight, apparently that is the most rain Leiden has had in 75 years.  It is a rainy place, but this extra amount of rain was definitely noticed.

My last week in Leiden has been quite sad in a good way, because I don’t think that I could ever say that I feel ready to leave.  There is so much that I will miss (minus the above mentioned rain, of course).  My last lunch with everyone at the University was sad as well.  Here, I can carry around my Nutella jar and a loaf of bread and make a sandwich at the table, and there is about an 80% chance that people at the table on both sides of me are doing the same – if not with Nutella, with chocolate sprinkles.  Needless to say, I fit in pretty easily here, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that at home!

On a more serious, practical note, during my time in Leiden I have learned more than I could probably tell you.  Internships are invaluable experiences that give you just that – experience.  It is a great time to learn and get a true feel for a career outside of the classroom.  It is also a great way to meet people and build a network.  I am very grateful to those who have helped me have this opportunity, and especially Pedro Russo and George Miley for giving me the opportunity to join the UNAWE family.

Just as I have been making my final preparations for returning to the US, I was suggested for an internship (to start as soon as possible) with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) at their headquarters in Paris, to assist in the preparations and organization of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to be held in Cape Town, South Africa at the beginning of October.  The IAF, according to their website, “…is a worldwide federation of organisations active in space.”  The IAF has 205 members (ranging from space agencies and companies, universities, societies and associations) in 58 countries and the IAC is the annual event that brings together all of these members.  After returning to the US for one week, I am very excited to take on this new adventure in Paris and Cape Town, and I hope to continue to keep you posted!

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