Charles Barclay launches 2019’s Astronomy Lectures with talk about British Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad

Charles Barclay picture in suit and tie in profile outside with blue sky behind

Green Templeton College Associate Fellow Charles Barclay launched the 2019 Astronomy for All Lecture Series on Wednesday, 23 January with a personal insight into an emerging initiative for secondary school students, that has already achieved success overseas.

The talk focused on his involvement with the British Astronomy and Astrophysic’s Olympiad (BAAO), a competition aimed at students with a strong ability in physics and maths and an enthusiastic interest in astronomy.

The BAAO was launched in 2015 and is a gateway to competing in the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA), a prestigious annual competition welcoming bright students from more than 40 countries across the world.

Charles explained the BAAO is primarily aimed at Year 12 and Year 13 but younger students do also take part. Students hoping to make the BAAO team must sit three exam papers: a BAAO Challenge paper in September, a British Physics Olympiad Round 1 paper in November and a full BAAO paper in January, with the 12 best results being selected for the Oxford training camp and selection for the UK IAAO team. The International exam consists of a five-hour theoretical paper, making up 50% of the overall score, a four-hour data analysis paper (25%) and a two-hour observational paper (25%). Questions relate to current astronomy topics, with previous examples being questions about gases on Titan, gravitational waves, shadow lengths, the early universe and telescope optics.

Charles described the ideal BAAO student as someone who is good at physics and maths, has a passion for astronomy, is a good problem solver, and can work independently, as much of the pre-competition training is done via email and Facebook. He said an expert knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics isn’t expected but students should ideally be familiar with the astrophysics in the A-Level syllabus and any who have GCSE Astronomy will have the basic grounding. An ability to work quickly is necessary given the exam time constraints.

All students competing in the IOAA must be under 20 on the day of the competition. The timing of each annual event means a team can vary between being still at school and more junior, to already at university and more experienced. For example, India changed the date of the 2016 IOAA from August to December, meaning most of the participants had already started higher education.

He spoke about the various countries taking part in the IOAA and how Western Europe is not hugely represented, with only the UK and Portugal currently being involved. He also pointed out that some countries have up to 100,000 initial entries to choose their team from, but said the pool of possible students in the UK is much smaller. He detailed the astronomy teaching available at KS2, KS3 and KS4, and the growing popularity of the GCSE Astronomy, but flagged how it still has a relatively low number of candidates (about 2,500 a year).

Charles said he was keen to break down the perception of astronomy being a subject confined to independent schools, saying it was also taught in state schools and previously BAAO teams have been a mixture of independent and state students. He also said the ratio of female to male students doing GCSE Astronomy is 40/60 and he’s eager to ensure BAAO teams continue to include both female and male participants.

As Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), Charles touched on the RAS 200 initiative, an outreach programme to celebrate the Society’s bicentenary in which £1 million was provided to reach communities which had never received astronomy teaching before. He emphasised the BAAO’s aim is to reach the brightest young minds regardless of their background or location, ensuring all aspiring astronomers have an equal chance to take part.

Associate Fellow Charles Barclay leads UK team at 12th IOAA (c) Charles Barclay

Charles with the UK team at the 2018 IOAA in Beijing. They won two silver medals and two honourable mentions.

The latter part of Charles’ lecture focused on the IOAA and the British team’s previous – and future – involvement. Only five students from the UK are selected for the BAAO team and travel to the IOAA competition overseas. They are accompanied by two team leaders and one observer, who is there to help or learn the ropes as a future team leader.

In 2015, they won two silvers in Indonesia. The following year in India they took home one gold, one silver, one bronze and two honourable mentions, finishing in sixth place in the overall Country medal table. At the 2017 Thailand event, they won one silver and three bronze.

Last year, at the most recent competition in Beijing, Charles took a team featuring three independent school pupils and two state school pupils, all in Year 12. They won two silver medals and two honourable mentions.

Putting the figures into context to highlight the British teams’ successes, Charles explained around 300-400 students take part each year and 50% go home with nothing. Around 10 get gold, around 20 silver, and 30-40 a bronze.

The next competition will be held in Hungary this August, with Colombia pencilled in for 2020. However, Charles emphasised constraints on funding for the BAAO could put their future participation in the IOAA in doubt. He broke down the numbers (including training camps, flights, accommodation and competition outfits to name a few), estimating the BAAO is around £20,000 short of their funding goal.

This marked the 40th lecture in the Astronomy for All Lecture Series, which Charles began in 2006 as a way of strengthening and reinforcing the link between Green Templeton, home of the Radcliffe Observatory, and astronomy and the Oxford Astrophysics Department in particular.

You can read more about the history of astronomy at Green Templeton here.

The other two Astronomy For All Lectures this year were

The gravitational sky

Wednesday 20 February at 18:00
Speaker: Professor Mike Cruise, President of the Royal Astronomical Society

Galaxy Zoo: from the lab to the living room

Wednesday 27 February at 18:00
Speaker: Dr Becky Smethurst, Oxford Astrophysics

Everybody is warmly invited to attend both lectures, which are free to attend and will take place at Green Templeton’s EP Abraham Lecture Theatre.

Created: 28 January 2019