Optics in the Outback

Optics in the Outback 2011
Björn Sturmberg and Owen Brasier

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In the early morning depths of September the twelfth we set off from Sydney for our 2 weeks outreach trip, not really knowing what lay ahead in the far reaches of the state.
But with our boot full of cool demonstrations including a laser telephone, wavelength division multiplexing sound system and a laser maze, we felt like the 11 schools we were to visit were in for a show!
A 2500 km loop would take us anti-clockwise around NSW - to Hay, to Wilcannia, to Tamworth, to Newcastle.

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The first stop on this frosty Monday morning was Yass.
By lunch time the fog had lifted from the valley and we had given our first 2 presentations to a quite year 11 class and a bubbly group of year 10s.
We had had our first taste of how rewarding it is to have enthusiastic students engage with the topics asking insightful questions and we drove into the warming day spirits high.

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In the Riverenia we visited Narrandera, Leeton, Griffith and Hay High Schools.
Here the senior physics classes had less than half a dozen students but of exceptional calibre.
We were asked about perfectly absorbing graphene, discussed their suggested application of metamaterials to cloak the gamma radiation emitted by nuclear reactors and for the first time an exabyte was a quantifiable figure.
At another school we were asked to explain how scientists knew what black holes look like and how exactly we were able to fabricate metamaterials.

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Some students were looking to study science and engineering courses at university and enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the various aspects of student life.
In Hay the school hall was filled with the sole senior physics student (who studied by correspondence) but also 70 odd year 9 and 10 students.
In question time we were thrilled to hear that a handful juniors wanted to take HSC physics, thereby starting a HSC course taught at Hay.
To cap the visit off a few students managed to complete our 3 dimensional laser maze, which we had generally made difficult to impossible.

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The 4.5 hour drive from Hay to Wilcannia involves an almost 200 km stretch on (incredibly red) dirt road (as well as many hideously long straights).
When it (occasionally) rains this stretch is closed with a penalty of 5,000 per wheel enforcing a 5 hour detour via Broken Hill.
The water from the previous weeks rains had thankfully cleared and all we had to watch out for where the emus that `have their own cloaking, one minute they're nowhere and then they're right in front of you'.

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Wilcannia central school (K-12) has less than 110 enrolments and on the Friday afternoon we presented numbers were much lower again.
To present to such a wide audience we cut the talk back to 20 minutes and spent the remainder of the hour running through our demonstrations and guiding the excited primary school kids through the laser maze.
Whilst packing up the young science teacher invited us to stay with him, and so we spent our Friday night in the outback watching the footy with the local teachers.

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On the weekend we camped and explored the intensely beautiful Mutawintji National Park and drove to Brewarrina (a 7 hour journey along what must be some of the world’s straightest roads).
On Monday morning we were spotted at Brewarrina central school because `you must be physicists, biologists have much bigger beards'.
Here we presented to the high school students that numbered around 40.

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By the time we rolled into the `country music capital of Australia' (Tamworth) that evening we had racked up another 500 km driving. Arriving just after 9 pm our dinner options were comprised of `pizza, pizza or pizza', thankfully we felt like pizza...
At Peel Technology School we set up in their `theaterette', or as we like to call it a 100\+ seat thearter inclusive of stage, light and sound systems.
Like all students (and teachers) across the state our OSA LED bouncy balls were an instant hit being hotly contested for by the top students from years 8-11.
Several of the students enquired about science degrees at the University of Sydney (thereby also earning themselves giveaways).

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From Tamworth we headed through the Hunter Valley to Newcastle, stopping on the way at Muswellbrook.
By now school sizes had swelled to over 800 students and in Muswellbrook we presented to multiple classes throughout the morning.
Merewether High School in Newcastle had an impressive 4 year 11 physics classes many of whom attended our presentation on the afternoon of the second last day of their school term.
This timing helped created a relaxed atmosphere in which many of our questions were toyed with whilst some particularly difficult ones we had added in took some serious thought to solve - for example name three types of signal modulation.
Many of these students will go on to take science and engineering degrees and were interested in what optics research could lead to and what was happening in our group, CUDOS.

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The final stop on our journey was at Björn's old school, Gosford High School.
Here the Physics Olympiad training that some of the year 11s had been doing in extra classes after school had prepared them exceptionally well for our talk. We were impressed that on the last day of semester the class room was filled, even though it was an 8 am class.
Having reached Sydney, after 2495 kms of empty roads, we spent well over an hour bumper to bumper in a traffic jam - civilisation, apparently.

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The outreach program and the whole experience were a great successful with students and teachers asking us to return in 2012, and with us more than happy to oblige! The trip was independently organised and free for the school. This was only made possible by the generous support of the CUDOS research group at the University of Sydney, the OSA, SPIE, the School of Physics at University of Sydney and Lastek. We wish to sincerely thank all of these groups, and pass on the thanks from the 450+ students that thanked us on our trip!