Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last weekend I had the chance to eat asado not once, but twice! Asado is a common dish in Argentina, and is usually cooked on Sundays. It is basically a distant cousin of bbq, but the similarities end there. Asado is cooked over coals, usually in an elevated fireplace. The fireplace might be outside, in its own outbuilding, or in a garage. Around San Luis the coals are usually from wood, but in other places they use charcoal briquettes.

Jorge tending the grill
Before cooking the raw meat is seasoned with salt and other spices. There are almost always several different cuts of meat... matambre is my favorite, it is a type of thin flank steak cut from the belly. Costillas are ribs, which are sometimes called asado as well. Lomo is tenderloin, vacío is a flank steak, and a bife can either be a T-bone or a rib-eye depending on where it is cut from (bife de chorizo or bife de costilla). There is almost always sausage (chorizo) and blood sausage or sweetbreads if you're into that sort of thing. These names seem to vary a little bit depending on who you talk to, but it gives you a general idea of what can be on the menu.

Most asados include at least 2 but perhaps as many as 5 different cuts of meat. I was told that the seasoning and cooking of the meat isn't nearly as important as the quality of the cut, which defines the overall taste. People seem to have a butcher that they trust to get them good meat, otherwise it isn't worth going to the trouble of preparing everything.
The meat tends to have a lot of fat and isn't really trimmed at all before being tossed on the grill. This is one of the reasons that it tastes so good, but it's much different than a typical Sunday afternoon bbq in the states. Another reason is that the majority of the cattle here are grass-fed. Argentines are serious about their beef and eat a lot of it- sometimes beef is on the menu twice a day.

Chopping garlic
On Friday night I went to a weekly gathering of guys with a professor from the university. I've tagged along before, but never for the main event until now. There was asado, as always, but the main dish was actually something called bagna cauda, which is akin to fondue. The dipping sauce is made from cream, milk, a ton of diced garlic, anchovies (later filtered out), and finely chopped walnuts. There was a wide variety of food to dip: chicken, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread, cabbage, celery, etc. Very rich!

The crew
Bon appetit!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

By popular request

Over the past week I've gotten some feedback from this blog. It was great to hear from folks, both to catch up and hear what people are interested in learning more about. The people have spoken, and they want to see more pictures of teaching and learning. I will do my best to shut my trap and let the images speak for themselves. Some are from a lesson where students used a computer simulation and some are from a lesson I taught using conceptual problems and whiteboards. I am not featured at all- mostly because I was the one shooting, but also because the students are the ones doing the work.

Classes run from 7-3:50 with a lunch break. On select days class goes longer.

Some students brought in laptops to work on a simulation during class.

Hope you enjoyed this, I'll see what I can do to include shots from other classes over the next week or two. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer them (or ask someone else who lives locally if I don;t know the answer).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No more lectures?

This past week I traveled to Chile using professional development funds from my Fulbright Grant. First I went to to Mendoza, and then caught another bus to Viña del Mar.
Students writing down guiding questions for the unit.
On my first day here we went to visit a school in a remote area called Quillota. I was a little bit apprehensive about visiting this school- I had been told that all of the students had been expelled from other schools and that this was a safety net of sorts. I later learned that they were expelled because of academic problems, no behavior issues. In fact, I found the students to be incredibly nice and open to my presence in the classroom.

Working hard
 At the end we took some pictures together, and the president of the student body (who happened to be in the class I visited), politely asked me if I could send him some pictures to remember my visit. Another thing: this school was basically empty save for desks, a blackboard, and a whiteboard that had seen better days. The room was very cold, way colder than my classroom ever is. Some students wore gloves and hats, and they all had sweatshirts or coats on. Despite these obstacles, the kids worked HARD at what they were doing and seemed really interested in the material. Speaking of which, the instruction was very traditional. I think that the teacher would be open to using different methods, but her lessons and methods seem to be dictated by the school. This seems to be a pattern here, and much of the difficulty in implementing reformed teaching methods lies not in convincing teachers, but in winning over the administration.

Class sizes are small so that the students can receive individualized attention

The entire class with their teacher
I actually came to visit the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María, which is in Valparaiso, practically next door. Though its name suggests differently, the university is not religiously affiliated. It's one of the top technical schools in Chile, and Hugo Alcarón is leading the charge as the university implements some fantastic reformed teaching methods.
USM is right next to the ocean in picturesque Valparaiso
The first step has been to renovate the classroom environments. Pretty much the only thing they use typical lecture halls for now is to give exams, though these will be utilized for some reformed methods such as Peer Instruction and Interactive Lecture Demonstrations down the road. The new classrooms are beautiful and nearly complete- a few details have yet to be finished, but the system as a whole is impressive.
A SCALE-UP classroom at Penn State. The facilities at USM are similar.
The rooms are designed around the SCALE-UP methodology developed at NCSU, which has also been implemented at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, where Hugo worked previously. The rooms are filled with massive tables that seat nine students (3 groups of 3). The tables are slightly out of round to encourage better collaboration. The tables are to be outfitted with netbooks in the very near future, and students can easily see the output from multiple projectors, which will soon be permanently mounted to the ceilings. The rooms are bright and airy and have terrific views. When we arrived before class started, Hugo had to ask other students who weren't part of the class to leave. More students came to the door during class and turned away, disappointed that the room was being used. Everyone wants to work in these rooms- they're very inviting and have whiteboards and other amenities that go a long way to encourage collaboration. There are multiple classrooms like this, which is a good thing, because ALL of the introductory physics courses are being taught in this manner. Other introductory courses in math, chemistry, and computer science are also being reworked to incorporate reformed teaching methods. Upper division courses are being overhauled as well so that students may eventually graduate without having experienced a single lecture.
Students at USM working in a SCALE-UP classroom
This is an immensely powerful idea, and I am blown away that the university has taken such ambitious steps to improve its students' learning. In fact, a push is beginning to extend these methods to all of the different USM campuses. The commitment that this takes is astounding, but I think it means a lot that the powers that be have recognized that traditional instructional methods simply do not work.

Friday, May 18, 2012

3 Amigos

On the last day of the trip I took around Argentina I went on a tour up into the mountains with a tour group. Not too far, but out of the city. I went rafting and then went through the canopy zipline tour. Canopy is a little bit misleading, because there weren't any tree, but there were ziplines. I was a little bit skeptical beforehand, but it was pretty cool. At least I didn't come down with an infection of flesh-eating bacteria. Anyway, the highlight of the day wasn't either of the activities, though they were great. The highlight was the company of two Argentines from Buenos Aires, a mother and daughter, who were spending the week in Mendoza. We struck up a conversation on the van and they welcomed me as a third wheel for the day (hence the image of the Three Amigos above). They were extraordinarily helpful when I struggled to say something in Spanish, and offered me lots of pointers about how to speak better. We had great conversations and it was a terrific way to spend the day.

One of the biggest Ah-Ha moments I had during the day was when we were watching a vanload of tourists unload. My new friends were talking about where they were from, and eventually agreed that about half were from abroad, some from the US and some from Europe. I asked how they knew, and they explained that it was as simple as complexion right off the bat, but also clothing, sunglasses, baggage, and how they behaved that led them to this conclusion. It turned out that they nailed it- 2 from France, 5 from the US, 4 from Argentina. What I got out of this conversation is that even if I don't open my mouth, most Argentines are going to spot me as a foreigner from a mile away simply by my haircut or the way I dress and walk. So they probably already expect me to speak differently too. This might not seem like much of a revelation, but it was really liberating for me because I don't have to be concerned about fitting in. Not that I ever really expected to blend in to begin with, but now I know it's basically impossible.

Pablo and I sharing a toast before digging into some delicious homemade empañadas. 
The past week or two also marked a big change in my life here in San Luis. It seems I've finally gotten past the awkward outsider phase and found some folks to hang out with, most recently in the form of Pablo and his fiancé Valeria. We've become good friends and they've incorporated me into their daily lives. This has led to all kinds of experiences that I'd been missing out on: cooking meals and eating together, going to the mall and playing air hockey (some things don;t need to be translated), hanging out, and even a soccer match. The game started at midnight, which isn't so common back home, but it was great to play and I can't wait to go again. Pablo has also appointed himself the Mr. Miagi of my Spanish training, and vows that I will return home speaking like a local. Don't get me wrong, the welcome that everyone gave me when I arrived was incredible. However, there is a difference between a formal welcome and making friends on my own. I feel really lucky to have gotten to this level.

My project is moving forward, and I'm slowly getting things in line to visit more schools. The schools I've visited have been great, but I need a wider range of data for my study to be meaningful. It's too bad that some of the schools happen to have their physics classes scheduled at 7:15 on Thursday mornings- I still haven't figured out how to be in two places at the same time. The students are great and I wish I could go to all their classes, but sadly that's not the way it works.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Catching up

This weekend my fellow Fulbrighter came to visit from Rio Cuarto. We had a great time hanging out yesterday and then today after I played tennis with some folks, Silvia took us for a tour of the province of San Luis. We covered a lot of ground in a short period of time. I am exhausted and don't have the energy to add much more than the photos, but it was a really great time.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The hunt for cosmic rays

This past week included three days of holidays: two federal and one provincial. It was suggested that if I were interested in travelling, this would be a good week to do it. So... after visiting Buenos Aires I headed west to the town of Malargue, home to Pierre Auger Observatory. This facility is massive- 1600 tanks (which detect cosmic ray showers) each separated by 1.5km. The total size is about the size of Rhode Island! Auger doesn't own the land, but leases it from the owners, who are mostly ranchers and farmers.

A friend of mine through QuarkNet had arranged for me to visit the site, and I was given the red carpet treatment when I arrived. Analia, the Outreach Coordinator, started the visit in classic Argentina style: café and pastries with some of the staff! Over the food we chatted a bit about what their individual roles are and how they came to be involved with Auger. Afterwards, Ricardo, one of the senior staff members, gave me the standard tour presentation, and was kind enough to give it in Spanish so I could hear the technical vocabulary. 

After the presentation he took me on the behind the scenes tour of the main building.
The Pierre Auger Control Center.
This is the room where the staff collects all of the data being sent in by the 1600 detectors. They also keep tabs on atmospheric conditions and watch the weather- high winds can be a problem for some of the equipment.

Access vehicle for tricky sites (and no, I didn't get to ride in it)
Virtually all of the tanks are placed in sites that are hard to access and do not have power available. The solution to run is equipment is to rely on solar power, which is abundant here. The solar panels have to replaced periodically though- this one was damaged by vandals throwing stones.

The solar panels only generate power during the daytime (thanks captain obvious), but the tanks detect particles continuously and need to transmit the data they take back to the control center immediately. The reason for this is because this site generates an immense amount of raw data- too much to store. So the system has to do a quick scan of the raw data to see if an event is "interesting" enough to warrant keeping. Hence the need for the immediate transmission. Anyway, the solution is to use car batteries; two for each tank. With 1600 sites, they keep a lot of spares on hand just in case!

Lots o' batteries
The tanks themselves are quite large and are filled with water. There are three photomultiplier tubes on the top of the tank which can measure Cherenkov Radiation, which is produced when an eletcromagnetic particle hits the water. For any of you PPG members reading this, it's worth noting that this is a different mechanism than what our muon detector uses. Rather than water, ours uses scintillating plastic, and our PMT's are a little bit different. The concept is similar, but Auger does things on a much larger scale!
Ricardo posing with a tank that was damaged by a brush fire and brought back from the field.
After my morning tour I went to the hotel for lunch and then came back in the afternoon to tag along on a site visit with Primo. He was headed out to replace some equipment in one of the large buildings that measures fluorescence. These buildings each house 6 identical parabolic sensors, each pointing in a slightly different direction out over the array. 

Schematic from the observatory
In the image above each red dot is a tank. The four sites with the green lines radiating outward are the fluorescence detectors. These gather different data than the tanks- not so much events themselves, but related atmospheric data that can be used to help interpret the results of different showers. 

We took a truck out to the site: complete with two spare tires and a radio. While in the field the staff are required to check in with the central office periodically to stay abreast of changing weather.

Inside the fluorescence buildings are the 5 fluorescence detectors (FD's). Each one consists of a massive parabolic mirror (constructed in segments) and a camera at the focal point to collect the data. 
Yours truly as reflected in the mirror. This magnificent shot only took 20 or 30 attempts.

The FD's are protected from sunlight and harsh weather by automated doors. Primo cranked one of the doors open so I could see what the filtering system looks like.

In general, the FD"s only run during the night. If wind speeds rise about 15 km/hr or so, the doors shut to keep the equipment from getting damaged.

Primo was also working on another instrument, which is called the Photometric Robotic Atmospheric Monitor (FRAM, since photometric is spelled with an F in Spanish). It's housed in a separate building, which also opens up at night. He was kind enough to open it up so I could see it in action- it was pretty incredible. 
Primo with FRAM

The final image I have to share is from the top of the Fluorescence building. I used a timer to take this and was really impressed with how well it turned out, especially given the bright sunlight. You can see how remote this site is- we're pretty far out from Malargue, which is back toward the mountains.

My pictures don't do this place justice. If you want to see more, check out:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


This past weekend was a long weekend for the entire country. It just so happened that my brother and sister-in-law were visiting Argentina and were in Buenos Aires for the weekend. I took an overnight bus on Friday and meet up with them on Saturday morning to spend the weekend together.

Saturday was rainy and colder than normal. I knew Boca was playing at home and tracked down a fellow who specializes in taking novice fans to games ( We took the plunge and bought our tickets.
The trip started off with pizza and beer at the bar in the neighborhood of Boca.

We enjoyed watching the fans hang their banners, most of which ended up covering the existing advertisements in the stadium.

I've never heard or seen fans like Boca's. The fans call themselves "La 12" - the Xenizes. They sang and jumped the entire game without pause. The game was marked by a lot of cards, but the only goal was beautiful and belonged to Boca. I am a convert!

We saw a lot of other stuff in BA and ate a ton of good food, but Boca was definitely the highlight. We also took some interesting photos like this one:

On one hand it was really relaxing to speak English most of the time. On the other hand, I found myself being put into different scenarios where we needed to communicate and I was the only one who knew Spanish. It was actually easier to speak to people because I knew that I probably would never see them again, whereas in my hometown I'm reluctant to make huge mistakes. I certainly learned my lesson- nothing ventured, nothing gained! I am getting a little bit tired of people recognizing me as a foreigner before I've even finished a sentence, but I guess it comes with the territory.

In all seriousness, this was a great weekend and I feel rejuvenated after catching up with these great people. The placed we stayed was called Cabrera Garden ( ) and it was fantastic, I would highly recommend it if you find yourself hankering for the BA experience.

However, all is not over. I am off to new adventures as this week's itinerary includes San Rafael, Malargue, and Mendoza before returning home to San Luis. Stay tuned!