Monday 31 August 2015

Academic Competitions for School kids

There are quite a few academic competitions (national or state) available each year. Some of the ones DS1 and DS2 have entered (and I can recommend) are:


DS2 has now finished the round of ICAS tests for this year, an annual routine we commenced many years ago when DS1 was in Year 3. The ICAS (International Competitions and Assessments for Schools) tests are run by Educational Assessment Australia (EAA), an educational non-profit group of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) that specialises in large-scale assessment programs in Australia and more than twenty countries internationally. ICAS tests cost a small fee and are available for Digital Technologies, Science, Writing, Spelling, English, and Mathematics.

Most schools (I think) offer some ICAS tests - in our local Primary school they used to offer the whole suite of ICAS tests to interested pupils, but recently have reduced it to only English and Mathematics. I suspect this is due to low participation rates (only around 8/40 pupils in DS1s class did the ICAS tests this year) due to lack of interest (especially amongst those that don't expect to do well in such tests), having to attend the test before school, and the cost.

Fortunately the coaching school DS1 attends on Saturday morning is also able to offer ICAS tests in those subjects where it is not available at the pupil's normal school - so DS1 was able to do the remaining ICAS tests not available from his local public school.


Not really a competition, and not available to a student each year, the National Assessment Progam - Literacy and Numeracy, aka 'Naplan', is a compulsory test administered by the Department of Education every year, but only sat by pupils every second year (when they are in years 3,5,7,9). It is designed to allow the government to see how effective public education is in teaching 'the basics' of literacy and numeracy (English and mathematics) to the 'minimum standard' expected per the curriculum. The results are reported in 'bands' (1-6) for each year, in a similar way that 'bands' are used for assessing student performance in the HSC. Detailed results (showing student responses to individual questions, the correct response, and what % of the student cohort got the correct answer) are also provided, which can be a helpful guide if your child is having greater difficulty with one particular subject or one area within a subject. However, it is a fairly blunt tool at the top end, with DS1 and DS2 getting mostly band 6+ (the little triangular pointer which says 'somewhere above band 6...').

Young Scientist Competition:

This is an annual competition run by the Science Teacher's Association of NSW (STANSW) for students from years K-12 (there are separate categories for K-2, 3-6, 7-9. and 10-12). Entries can be in the category of 'Scientific Investigations', 'Models and Inventions', or in both categories. There is plenty of online help for parents and teachers at and as entry is free it is nice way to introduce kids to the 'scientific method' and writing a 'lab report' without having to worry if the entry is 'competitive'. Every entry gets a certificate ('participation', 'commendation',' high achievement' or 'excellence' depending on the score) so all student efforts get rewarded. There are small cash prizes for the top entries in primary school categories, and some more substantial cash prizes (and trophy for the winner) in the senior school entries. Some winning entries also go on to the National Science and Engineering Awards and might be selected to proceed on to the International Science and Engineering Fair...

Logical Thinking Challenge (LTC):

This is a free online adaptive multiple choice test (24 questions in 30 minutes) run during one 24-hour period each year (12/13 September this year) for students in Years 3-8. It is developed by the University of Melbourne and achieving an excellent result 'wins' free entry into the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) written competition run by North Shore Coaching the following month. North Shore Coaching also donates $100 to every school that has more than 30 students participate in the LTC. See for details and online registration.

Creative Problem Solving (CPS) National Competition:

Run by North Shore Coaching College, this competition costs $20 (refunded/exempt for those that do well in the LTC), this written test is set and marked by the University of Melbourne. Entries close on 6 October and the test is on 17 October. Trophies, Certificates and Prizes are awarded in each Age Group (A-F).

AMT Competitions:

The Australian Mathematics Trust (AMT - see runs both 'open' and 'invitational' competitions in the areas of mathematics and informatics. These competitions have to be entered via school registration. The annual 'open' competitions are:

Computational and Algorithmic Thinking (CAT) - for students in years 5-12. Held in March.

Australian Mathematics Competition (AMC) - for students in years 3-12. Held in May.

Australian Informatics Olympiad (IAO) - for students in years 7-12 with programming ability. Held in September.

Australian Statistics Competition (ASC) - for students in years 7-12. Project based, due in September.


UNSW Computing Department runs an annual programming competition (ProgComp) for High School teams around Australia. The main round is held in schools (19 June this year), and the best dozen or so teams get invited to compete at the Grand Final held at UNSW on 5 Sep this year. Teams comprise of up to three students. The competition involves solving as many as possible of around five set problems in two hours, using any programming language that will take input from keyboard or text file and produce output as a text file. The program code and text file submissions are manually reviewed to check that output has not been 'typed' rather than generated by a running program. The manual marking allows some marks to be awarded for partial solutions.  Textbooks and manuals can be consulted, but no outside help is allowed.

DS1 has entered this for the past couple of years (using Python) and enjoys getting a better score each year, but as a 'team' of only one student, his entries aren't competitive. He might have more luck organising a real 'team' next year when some of the other students are studying Software Design and Development in Year 11...  unless you make it to the 'Grand Final' there are no prizes, but you do get a certificate, and your name on the past results page:

Chess Competitions:

There are school-team based 'round robin' competitions run by the NSWJCL (NSW Junior Chess League) during terms 2 and 3. There is also a one-day interschool chess competition held at the end of term 3. Aside from that, the NSWJCL also runs one-day, and two-day chess competitions during each school holiday. The entry fees are modest ($15 for a one-day competition involving 7x30 min games), but you also have to pay the small annual fee to join the NSWJCL (for which you will get the magazine each term that includes some Chess puzzles, articles about winners of NSWJCL competitions, and the printed chess ratings listing). DS1 and DS2 play school chess, but don't take it very seriously, so they only attend one (or two) of the one-day chess competitions during school holidays if they have nothing else organised.

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Thursday 27 August 2015

HSC Subject selection

DS1 has just gone through the process of selecting which subjects he will do in years 11-12 for his Higher School Certificate (HSC).

He was already enrolled in Preliminary SDD (Software Design & Development) this year (via distance education through HSCOnline) as an 'accelerate' student, so will be doing his HSC exams for that subject while he in in Year 11. Although computer programming is one of his favourite subjects (he started the Year 9 ITC course while he was in Year 8, but couldn't do it last year as it was no longer offered by HSCOnline), it doesn't 'scale' very well (so, unless he gets in the top 1% in that subject it is unlikely to be included in the 'best 10 units' used to calculate his ATAR for university entry). So it is probably a good idea to get in done while he is in Year 11 next year so he can concentrate on the more demanding (and better scaling) HSC subjects like Ext 2 Math while he is in Year 12. He is also doing a lot of other extracurricular computing activities this year (he completed the UNSW Computing 1 course( 'HS1917') earlier this year, and will be doing his week of 'work experience' at NICTA in term 4), so once his SDD final exam is completed early in term 4 next year he can have a 'gap year' from computing studies while he concentrates on his other HSC subjects.

For his 'real' HSC subjects he is doing English Advanced (no choice about that as 2 units of English has to be included in the HSC and in the 10 units used for ATAR calculation, and everyone at his selective High School does English Advanced rather than Standard) and English Ext 1 (although it's not his best subject, so he may drop English Ext 1 in Year 12 -- although it 'scales' well there isn't any point if he isn't at least in the 'top half' of the class). He might also have to drop Ext 1 English to make room for his other subjects and Ext 2 Maths in his school timetable.

He is also doing Maths and Math Ext 1 in Year 11, and intends adding Math Ext 2 in Year 12 (if his results are good enough). Math Ext 2 'scales' extremely well, so if he has the ability it can be quite time-effective compared to some other subjects that can take an inordinate amount of time (especially those that involve a 'major work' project).

His other subjects are Chemistry, Physics, Economics and Business Studies. He is quite interested in both science and finance/economics so those subject choices should suit him quite well. These subjects also happen to 'scale' quite well (if you achieve a decent result) as they are popular with the more able students. Given that most of the students attending selective high schools have been drawn from the 'top 2%' of students in the state (based on the entry tests done at the end of primary school), he should do fairly well in his HSC mark and ATAR ranking as long as he is in the 'top half' in each subject at his school. Ideally he should be aiming for the top quarter in each class, and possible try for 'first place' in some of his better subjects (he came first in Commerce last year, so he might do quite well in Economics and Business Studies).

Overall, his HSC preliminary subjects (year 11) at school for next year are:
English Advanced + Ext 1 (ie. 3 units)
Mathematics + Ext 1 (ie. 3 units)
Business Studies (2 units)
Chemistry (2 units)
Economics (2 units)
Physics (2 units)
and HSC Software Design and Development  (2 units) taken via distance education.

This is a total of 16 units, which is quite a heavy workload! Fortunately aside from Judo he doesn't have any time consuming extracurricular activities, as he is no longer studying piano.

In his HSC (year 12) at school he will probably be taking some combination of:
English Advanced (+ Ext 1 ?)
Mathematics + Ext 1 (+ Ext 2 ?)
Business Studies

However, as the school rules (and timetabling restrictions) only allow enrollment in 14 units or less for Year 12, he may have to drop a subject if he continues with English Ext 1 and also wants to do Maths Ext 2. He'll be making that decision around this time next year.

Although DS1 will be very busy, I don't think he'll be under too much pressure, as he has no interest in studying either medicine or law at university, and so he should easily get a sufficient ATAR to enrol in whatever science, engineering, computing or economics course he finally decides upon (he is still thinking about what he wants to 'do' at university). It will be interesting to see if he ends up doing well enough to qualify for a university scholarship though...

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Buying straw hats in Winter

The stock market was down nicely on Monday and early Tuesday, so I decided to take the opportunity to 'top up' my holdings in IHD (iShares S&P ASX High Dividend ETF) and RDV (Russell High Dividend Australian Shares ETF), buying about $6,000 worth of each using my Comsec margin loan account.

I didn't get around to placing my order until mid-afternoon, by which time prices were already recovering. As I intend to hold onto my geared share portfolios for at least 10-15 years until I retire (and probably longer, although I'll probably pay off any remaining margin loan amounts when I retire as the tax benefits of negative gearing will be negligble if the current 'tax free' status of superannuation pension income remains in place) it makes sense to add to my stock portfolio when 'the market' panics and shares are 'on sale'.

Of course the downside of such market volatility is that my superannuation balance has gone down by about $35,000 over the past couple of months. But as I'll still be in 'accumulation phase' for the next 10-15 years it pays to remain sanguine about such market volatility. I was tempted to move the $40,000 cash we have sitting in our SMSF into our Vanguard High Growth Index Fund investment, but decided to stick with out current $5,000 per month transfers to 'dollar cost average' the ongoing investments.

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Tuesday 4 August 2015

Net Worth: July 2015

My estimated net worth at the end of July had recovered some of the decrease experienced the previous month, reaching $1.815m (including the 'cost base' value for the lakeside property I 'inherited' from my parents in 2014). The gains were due to a rebound in global stock prices (although not to 2015 highs, and the Australia stock market is still well below its previous highs experienced in 2007), which is reflected in the valuations of both my geared stock portfolio and my superannuation balance, and a continued rise in the estimated valuation of our Sydney home.

There are no investment changed planned for this month. I will continue to save mostly via 'salary sacrifice' contributions into my SMSF.

I'm currently re-assessing my previous plans to add an extension to the existing 'holiday home' on my lakeside property - the plan was to have a $50,000 two-storey 'kit shed' added to the rear of the building. By getting my owner-builder permit and employing contractors directly I expected to finish the building to 'lock-up' stage for around $150,000 and then install a kit kitchen and bathroom, gyprock, painting, flooring etc. myself during holiday stays at the property. However, that would require my 83-year-old father to do the day-to-day supervision of the contractors, and me try to manage things 'long distance' with many 7-hour round trips to the farm a couple of times a month. However, my father isn't too keen on being responsible for supervising the on-site activities, and as I am supposed to be working on my part-time PhD (and also doing a couple of Diplomas via distance eduction over the next 12-24 months) I doubt I'd be able to 'project manage' the work to the extent required. Just finding willing and able local contractors to do the site survey, bush fire assessment, and architectural drawings via phone calls and emails has been problematic. The alternative would be to find a local builder to contract to complete the project to 'lock-up stage', but that would make the project much more expensive. As we are only planning on using the property as a 'weekender' and holiday home until I retire, and our eldest son will soon be too busy during his final years of high school to spend all his vacation time 'up at the farm', it is probably sensible to put the plans for adding an extension on hold until I retire and decide how much time I will actually spend living on the lakeside 'hobby farm'.

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