NUS Science Summer Camp 2017 – my second visit to Singapore


I still have very pleasant memories of my first visit to Singapore, when I took my mom along. In that trip, I attended the mindmap conference and  met Tony Buzan – the inventor of Mind Maps. I’ll write about that trip in detail in a separate article.

This time, I got the opportunity to visit Singapore as an escort for 8 students of The Doon School who were attending the Science Summer Camp 2017 at NUS campus. The reflections of my students about this summer science camp can be read here.

Each and every day was packed with activities and the activities went as per schedule exactly as planned. It was impressive how there was no delay in any program. The activities started and ended on time. Luckily, my students too were punctual for all the sessions. So I had a very pleasant trip, since my students were very responsible and mature and well-behaved.

The flight from Delhi to Singapore was over 5 hrs and I passed the time by watching Deadpool which was available in the TV screen on the front seat, and then by discussing a research paper with Arjun. There was a lot of delay in collecting our baggage because of rain and lightning. We were received by Mr. Venkat (a PhD student who volunteered to help with the logistics and administration of the summer camp), who escorted us to the bus. The entire program was managed very efficiently by a very enthusiastic and committed team of PhD students.

All modes of transport in Singapore have AC and windows are sealed. So public transport in Singapore is very comfortable and pollution-free. There is no noise-pollution even. All the vehicles plying on the roads seem to be in excellent condition and don’t emit any visible smoke or audible noise. There are plenty of trees and plants on the roadsides, on the dividers, under the flyovers, and in fact in all free spaces. I wonder how they tend to all these plants. So Singapore is not just a concrete jungle. It’s a good mix of cement, steel and carbon (plants and trees).

The first day, we just checked into our rooms at Tembusu Residency. Each of us got individual rooms, though the bathroom had to be shared by six of us. The rooms were all AC and very neat and comfortable. We had a briefing and were given the program schedule and other instructions.

The remaining days went as per schedule. So in the rest of the article, I”ll describe the main learning experiences in each of the activities as per the sequence of the program schedule.

Day 1 (19th June 2017, Monday)

  1. 9am – 11 am: 3D printing workshop: We were asked to bring our laptops with Fusion 360 software pre-installed, which we all did. A free version is available for teachers and students upon registration in the website. This software only works when connected to the internet because it stores all the work in the cloud, and is a collaborative software. It is used to make the designs of 3D objects and convert them  into a format which can then be directly ‘printed’ or manufactured using a 3D printer or by using any of the available online 3D printing services. The facilitator demonstrated the use of Fusion 360 and helped us to design the famous Fidget Spinner. He explained the important steps to be followed and menus to be used. The students were very excited and thoroughly enjoyed the session and were fully engaged during the entire session. Almost all of them were very impressed with their finished design of their own fidget spinner. Meanwhile, the facilitator also 3D printed a fidget spinner live, and gifted it to the nearest student who answered a simple question correctly. Students now have the ability to make their own inventions and create them by 3D printing them.
  2. 11:30 am – 12:30 pm: “Magic Sugar” for Medical Imaging by Dr. Zhang Sheng: This talk introduced the students to the science of Medical Imaging. Dr. Zhang explained the physics and chemistry behind Positron Emission Tomography Scans (PET Scans). To detect diseases like cancer, humans have arrived at such an ingenious method! Cancer cells have a higher metabolic rate (consumption or burning of sugar to release energy) than normal cells in order to keep up their high growth rate. The glucose metabolism has a certain number of steps. So now, we have analysed the chemical structure of glucose and after careful analysis decided that it would be best to replace a particular OH group in the glucose molecule, with a radio-isotope F-18 (Fluorine atom with mass number of 18, which is radioactive and undergoes Beta+ decay by emitting two positrons in opposite directions). When this F18 atom undergoes beta+ decay, the emitted positrons undergo annihilation when they collide with the nearest electron, and emit a pair of gamma rays which again travel in opposite directions to conserve linear momentum. These gamma rays are detected by the CT Scan (Computed Tomography) machine, based on the delay in each photon in reaching the detector. Prof.Zhang’s talk was very exhaustive and covered almost every aspect in minute detail. As a result, many parts of the lecture went over the heads of most of the students. But that’s ok! The interested students must go through the handouts (lecture notes) and use internet and take help from their teachers to fill in the gaps in their understanding.
  3. 2 pm – 4 pm:Introduction to Molecular Gastronomy -The Science of Cooking: The facilitator was a french lady and she first built a good rapport with the students with some general talk, before starting her session. It was a hands-on session where the students learned how to make sorbet, ice-cream, and chocolate mousse. They learned that to make such dishes, one needs to mix different states of matter together which normally wouldn’t mix, by using very cold temperature and by mechanical means like fast stirring or whipping. All the students were divided into pairs and made the dishes after looking at a demonstration and completed the worksheet by answering the questions, and finally ate their dishes.   My students will write in detail about the session. The facilitator used a new teaching technique wherein she gave 4 different colored cards to each group, and asked MCQs with 4 options where each option had one of the four colors on the cards. Student groups were supposed to discuss and raise the correct colored card to show their answer. I love this technique and plan to use it in my classes hereafter. It is a visible-thinking strategy and will be very useful to me.
  1. 4:30 pm – 5:00 pm: Game Theory (with Applications) Workshop: The facilitator gave us an exposure to Game Theory by discussing some famous puzzles. The students were given the handouts which gave the details of the puzzles, and the students tried to answer the puzzles. Through the discussion, they learned the basics of Game Theory. Some of the puzzles used were called ‘The Prisoner and Hats Riddle’ and ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’
  2. 5:00 pm – 5:30 pm: Graph Theory (with Applications) Workshop: The facilitator gave a handout and discussed the Konigsberg Bridge Problem, and scheduling problems (vertex colouring) and how to solve them using Graph Theory. The handout also talks about Influence Models  (Domination Theory), but that was not covered in the session due to lack of time.
  3. 5:30 pm – 6:30 pm: Planeterium Math: The session started with a brief description of how to predict the path of a planet orbiting a star by tracking its position coordinates, and differentiating it to find its velocity and by differentiating it further to find its acceleration. One can also obtain the acceleration by using Newton’s law of gravitation and integrate it to obtain the velocity and integrate it further to obtain the new position of the planet. After this introduction, we were taken to a mini indoor planetarium which used a very expensive projector. We were shown how the different zodiac signs appear in sequence to match with the 12 months of the year. We were shown the retrograde motion of mars and after we came out of the planetarium, this phenomenon was explained in further detail using an animation. I teach this concept to my grade 8 students, and I’m sure the students would’ve enjoyed seeing the retrograde motion as it would appear in the sky. The facilitator also mentioned the use of vpython to simulate the motion of orbiting planets.

Day 2 (20th June 2017, Tuesday)

  1.  9 am – 11 am: Science Demo Lab: In this session, the facilitator demonstrated a variety of physics experiments. He followed a very interesting style of explanation through questioning. Tables were setup with a number of demonstrations topicwise. The first table was on electrostatics. The students had to answer questions in the accompanying worksheet as they tried out the demonstrations. We saw a working model of the Wimhurst machine to produce high voltage by charging by friction.

    Wimhurst Machine

    This seemed to be a better model than the van de Graaf generator which requires electricity to work. Then we saw the demo of the Faraday’s cage and how a radio doesn’t receive any signal when placed inside a faraday’s cage. Then we saw a demo of lighting conductors and why a sharp metal spike sparks first when compared to a metal sphere with greater surface area. If both are kept together between two charged metal plates, the sharp spike will start leaking the charge between the plates and prevent a huge spark from happening, whereas, if only the metal sphere was present, it would lead to a big spark due to the buildup of charge. Then we saw a demo of magnetic levitation of a pellet of ceramic superconducting powder. When a pellet of superconducting powder wrapped in metal foil is kept in liquid nitrogen for some time, its temperature falls enough to make it a superconductor. Thereafter, if we drop it on top of a track of magnets, the superconducting pellet just floats at a certain height above the magnetic track and starts to move along the track. Eddy currents are induced in the superconducting pellet such that they produce an opposing magnetic field to oppose the change in magnetic flux through the pellet as it tries to fall down. When the magnetic force produced by the eddy currents balances the weight of the pellet, it floats in air. Due to horizontal component of velocity, it just keeps moving in the horizontal direction. The exact configuration of the magnets in the track is not known, but it causes the levitating pellet to move along the track. Now when the magnetic platform is inverted, the pellet doesn’t fall off, because when it attempts to fall, eddy currents are again induced, but now in the opposite direction, thereby causing the pellet to get attracted to the magnet above it. This time the induced magnetic field is such as to oppose the decreasing magnetic flux through the pellet as it attempts to fall towards the ground. So the pellet stops falling down when the upward magnetic force becomes greater than the weight of the pellet and causes the vertical velocity to become zero. Then we moved on to hydrostatics and a demo of the cartesian diver. A water bottle containing a sachet of ketchup would rise up or fall down according to the verbal instructions of the person holding the bottle! Of course, there’s no magic here! When the person presses the bottle, he increases the pressure inside the bottle, compressing the air inside the ketchup sachet, reducing its volume and increasing its effective density, causing it to sink, and vice versa. Then we explored friction force by hanging from 2 telephone directories whose pages had been interleaved. The books did not come apart! Then we saw a demo of centre of gravity always wanting to go down resulting in apparent magic. The double-cone appears to climb up a hill on its own, when actually its center of mass was only going down. We verified this by measuring the height of the center of the double cone at the bottom and top of the hill, and found that it had indeed gone down when the double-cone reached the top of the incline. We also saw the bird balancing on the tip of its beak, do a quick back flip if we try to balance it on the tip of its beak with its eyes facing upwards.  There were many more demonstrations on sound, and my students will talk about them. 

  2. 11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Nano Science Talk by Prof Sow Chong Haur: Professor Sow’s lecture was full of energy and humour. He introduced himself by saying that he obtained his pHD (Permanent Head Damage) by playing with superconductors. He said the teenagers might think pHD is Pizza Hut Delivery! This is just an example of the spontaneous jokes he interspersed throughout his lecture. He mentioned that he would be using a device to grab the attention of students whenever they lost it, and banged a plate with a hammer! His talk conveyed how he has had a lot of FUN doing research. He said he did research only for FUN and of course one more FUN, actually FUNd! His lecture answered the following questions – what is nanoscale and nano science? what are some applications of nanoscience?, how do we manipulate nanoscale objects? and how do we make structures out of nanoscale objects? His lectures containing many interesting demonstrations. He showed how the properties of materials changes when you go to nanoscale. The color of gold for instance changes from yellow to red, blue and even silver for different concentrations of gold in colloidal solutions. The Lycurgus cup changes color when light is transmitted from inside the cup. This property of a material is called dichroic and is due to the presence of gold nanoparticles in the glass. He mentioned how Richard Feynman had such an amazing foresight and predicted many of the present-day advances in nanotechnology when even the term ‘nanotechnology’ was not coined. Feynman famously remarked that “there’s plenty of room at the bottom.”. While talking about the applications of nanotechnology, he mentioned how cancer could be treated by attaching gold nanoparticles to molecules that would attach only to cancer cells, thus causing accumulation of gold nanoparticles in cancerous cells. Then, on shining infrared on the body part, the gold cells would become very hot and destroy the cancer cells. But this leaves the unsolved problem of how to remove the gold nanoparticles from the body after the treatment.  Nano test tubes could be used to hold medicines and release them only at target locations inside the body. Nanotechnology could be used to make very tiny electronic devices, like a computer that could fit inside a wristwatch, and create new materials with interesting and useful properties like ‘self-cleaning windows’. The materials could be made more durable and tough by coating with nanoparticles. He gave a demonstration by asking a student to break a block of ice by hitting it with a hammer. Then he gave the student another block of ice but this one had tissue paper mixed in the water while freezing. The student failed to break this ice block, the reason being that the tissue paper acted as a crack stopper. Nanoscale particles are moved around and constructed by using ‘Optical tweezers’, which work on the principle of conservation of linear momentum of light to cause a net force on a transparent glass bead. This technique only works on transparent nano particles. The students of NUS have created many interesting designs and NUS logos in nano-scale. They also came up with the idea of dynamic optical tweezers to create nanoscale MTV where the nanoparticles dance in tune to the music!
  3. 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm: Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Workshop: In this workshop, the students learned how to focus and click pictures of the desired portions of the specimen which has already been loaded inside a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Each of us got a print of the photograph of the specimen which we obtained on the SEM.

    Stomata viewed using Scanning Electron Microscope

    Hair viewed using Scanning Electron Microscope

    Scanning Electron Microscope

    The working principle of the SEM was also explained. The effect of energy and momentum of the electron on the de Broglie wavelength was explained. One can’t keep increasing the energy of the electrons with the intention of obtaining greater resolution of images by using smaller de Broglie wavelengths because the higher energy electrons will damage the specimen on collision. The electron beam is focused (made thinner) by using magnetic fields parallel to the the path of the electrons, by causing the electrons to spiral forward in narrower and narrower spirals.

  4. 3:30 pm -4:30 pm: Do It Yourself Toys Workshop – Constructing a Homopolar Motor: In this hands-on activity, we constructed a homopolar motor and understood its working principle. A thick copper wire which is insulated with a coating, two neodymium magnets, a AA cell are the materials required. Sandpaper is used to scrape off the insulation from the necessary areas of the copper wire. The copper wire is twisted into a symmetrical shape such that one part will touch the negative terminal of the cell and another part will touch the positive terminal of the cell. The wire structure should be such that its center of gravity is balanced, and the part touching the negative terminal through the neodymium magnets doesn’t hold the magnets too tightly (else, the friction will be too much and the wire won’t rotate). Students need to apply their knowledge of center of gravity to twist the wire such that it can be balanced on the tip of the finger first. Then, they need to transfer it to the cell. Once current flows through the wire, the horizontal segment of the wire close to the neodymium magnets experiences a magnetic force
  5. 4:30 pm – 5:30 pm: Smartphone Microscope Engineering Lab: Students learned how to use a micropipette. They used it to make a converging lens by placing a drop of PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane) mixed with curing agent, on a cover slip, which was then placed on a hot plate at 200 C for 1 minute to make it harden. The transparent lens was then placed on the lens of our cellphone to transform the cellphone camera into a microscope as powerful as the compound light microscope! We saw slides of insect head, cross-section of an artery, onion cell, to name a few.

    Text printed on Singapore currency note which is invisible to the naked eye but visible under the constructed microscope.

    cross-section of artery

    Onion Cells

Day 3 (21st June 2017, Wednesday)

  1. 9:30 am – 11:30 am: DNA in Forensic Science Workshop: The facilitator was rather strict and started the proceedings on a serious note by warning the students to behave and tie up their loose hair and maintain the seriousness required in a lab. After that, the session went on very smoothly and was fascinating. A murder crime scene was discussed and students were given different coloured samples (actually colored dyes) representing the DNA from samples taken from the crime scene, and two suspects. Again, students got the opportunity to use the micropipette and saw how the Agarose Gel Electrophoresis method of separating DNA strands works. They rightly identified the killer by comparing the separation distance between the ‘dna strands’.
  2. 11:30 am – 12:15 pm: Explore Science Centre: Here, the students split up and explored the Science Centre on their own. I too explored the various exhibits and got my thermal image clicked.

    My thermal image

    My colored shadows

    There were exhibits that showed the advances in bullets and shell making technologies. I purchased a boomerang at the Science Shop, and it really works! It really comes back to my hand when I throw it! The physics of a boomerang is also fascinating and involves gyroscopic precession of the axis of rotation and stabilising effect of angular momentum of a spinning boomerang.

  3. 1:00 pm – 1:45 pm: Science Movie@Omni-theatre – On the evolution of Robotics: Personally, I found this movie (documentary) about the evolution of robotics, boring and dozed off frequently. Questions were asked during the quiz on the final day from this, though! So I advice the students to pay attention next time!
  4. 3:00 pm – 7:00 pm: Singapore City Tour: The guide gave a very detailed description of all the landmarks and even the historical anecdotes behind the construction of many of the monuments. Students must’ve learned a lot about the history of Singapore and how it got its freedom and about its struggle during the occupation by the Japanese during World War II. We got to eat Ice-Cream sandwich (Vanilla). I made some purchases for my family at China Town.

Day 4 (22nd June 2017, Thursday)

  1. 10:00 am – 1:00 pm: Animal Classification Workshop at Lee Kong Chian Natural History (LKCNH) Museum: The museum had preserved specimens of animals from almost all the phyla and kingdoms. The facilitator gave a very detailed description of the animal classification system and explained how to identify and classify an animal based on its characteristic features. At the end, students had to identify the phylum of 20 specimens based on what they learned. I got 12 correct out of 20! Nobody got 20/20 though!

Me with my predecessor

      2. 3:00 pm – 8:30 pm: Visit to Sentosa Island: We were given free coupons for the skyride and the luge, which I promptly utilised.Then I ordered a cold coffee for S$10 and waited till the students assembled back. A peahen gave me company while I sipped the cold coffee slowly. I had explored all the delights of Sentosa Island during my last visit and so didn’t want to waste my money this time.

Day 5 (23rd June 2017, Friday)

  1. 9:00 am – 10:00 am: Science Quiz: Questions were very straight-forward and knowledge-based and MCQ type. If students had been attentive and had revised their learning each day, they could’ve easily won a gold, silver, or bronze medal. My students gave the excuse that they numbered the answers incorrectly. I was very disappointed that we could not win any medals.
  2. 10:30 am – 11:30 am: Admission Talk: Was very informative and they talked about the various courses offered at NUS and the campus life in NUS and how their courses have close integration with industry and research.
  3. 11:45 am – 1:00 pm: Certificate and Prize Presentation Ceremony 

Following this, we packed up and boarded our flight back home! Many students didn’t want to leave the NUS campus to head back home!

It was a new experience for me – the way a university campus is virtually like a city. I felt sorely tempted to turn back in time and become a student again and study in a university like this!