Since I was three, I have had far more than my fair share of bee stings—at least seven per year.” So read the introduction to Andrew Cowie’s science project.
Was the 12-year-old Auckland boy complaining? Not at all. Determined Certainly! Determined to figure out the reason for this not entirely welcome distinction, and how it might be avoided in future.
So he surveyed friends and acquaintances to ascertain the circumstances surrounding their encounters with the sharp end of bees. The answers were revealing: 28 per cent admitted “affording opportunities” to bees; 8 per cent had been stung while running away; 3 per cent had been taught a lesson by bees for “screaming and shouting”; 10 per cent claimed that their contact with bees was the result of being flat-footed; 7 per cent felt that bees had singled them out as “preferred subjects”; 22 per cent offered other explanations.
These cold statistics (but what credibility do you have without them today?) were supplemented by what can only be described as painstaking personal experimentation. Behold small boy in the accompanying photos, clad only in shorts and beekeeper’s hat, and standing in front of a veritable Berlin Wall of buzzing hives.
From a dozen or so trials in the company of an equally intrepid “control” subject, and smeared with such condiments as salt water, sweat and sunblock, Andrew concluded that his attractiveness to bees sprang from a combination of “the brand of sunblock I use and my pheromones”. This summer he’ll try a different brand of suncream.
If you think that this doesn’t sound like conventional school work, you’d be correct. But what apart from the threat of detentions and parental wrath inspires such dedication among the younger set? The answer is science fairs. Science fairs? Isn’t science some unintelligible business carried out by white-coated eccentrics who scurry about in sulphurous labs—something about as far away from the idea of a fair as you can get? Well, things seem to be changing. Science has leaked out of the lab, and is putting on a new, upbeat image for the nineties.
To tell the truth, science fairs have been around for a while—some 30 years locally, and more than double that in the USA—but they have been picking up momentum of late.
Back in the sixties I entered a precursor of a science fair. In those days it was called something more formal—a science exhibition, if I remember rightly. A single hall at the Auckland War Memorial Museum comfortably accommodated all the exhibits from the greater Auckland area. Presentation was pretty amateurish—personal computers hadn’t been invented, and few homes had typewriters, so fountain pens and coloured pencils were state of the art. Biological and physical sciences were the sole categories. Alongside today’s projects, mine wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Opto-mechanical devices with silicon brains pen most of today’s entries, producing truly professional quality. Coloured photographs, three-dimensional graphs, customised computer programs and working models spill over large display boards—a tsunami of information in dozens of entry classes which embrace every realm of science.
The “scientific method”—whereby every project attempts to test some hypothesis—flowers here to a rare degree, and woe betide anyone who lacks an Aim, Hypothesis, Method, Results and Conclusion! And what project would be complete without a log book detailing each hour’s incremental progress as the wheel of enquiry inches towards enlightenment?
Consider, for instance, a prizewinner from Southland. During his attempts to find out whether the addition of assorted waste products could augment soil fertility, he not only moved mountains of dirt (on a scale that made the Clyde Dam look like a worm cast) but also weighed, measured and planted vegetables in sufficient variety and number to banish forever the spectre of world hunger. The “notebook”—about the size of a Wellington phone directory—contained a complete and meticulously presented biography of every vegetable. (His was the only project which included a front-end loader in the list of equipment used.)
Inevitably, not all projects reach this pinnacle. Real science, as every scientist knows, is punctuated with times of frustration when experiments don’t work, equipment fails to arrive or breaks down, and animals just refuse to co-operate. Sometimes it can be tough just coming up with those ground-breaking ideas that underlie insightful experimentation. The notebook accompanying a study by a Form 2 pupil of how water level and pH changes affect an eel population reflects some of these hardships:
“Jan. Aunty and cousin came to stay. We began to discuss suitable subjects for science fair.
Feb. Began to single out my particular subject and think up ideas.
March-April. I ask around for universal indicator [a reagent which measures pH] and am pointed to spa and pool shops. Then am told to go somewhere else, etc, etc, etc.
May. After making umpteen phone calls, I am eventually pointed back to the place I started—school. Here I am supplied with the universal indicator.
June 20th. I begin my testing.”
Alas, the eels proved few in number—indeed, only one eel took part in the experiment. Relentlessly, the diary continues: “As last week, no eels came to spots 2 and 3, so I could not help be disappointed.” And, with admirable restraint: “Since most of the eels were not in the river at the time I was doing my tests, it is quite difficult to make a precise conclusion.”
However, a lack of data has rarely proved an obstacle to the determined scientist, and, despite the setbacks, our student went on to produce an attractive-looking project anyway. Indeed, it made a regional final.
Mark Twain’s observation comes to mind• “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”
Such has been the success of science fairs in recent years that there is now a hierarchy of fairs to challenge and reward the more ambitious exhibitor. Many schools mount their own fairs, or invite a few surrounding schools to contribute also. Nationwide, there were some 150 of these local fairs in 1992. The best entries from these events go on to regional fairs, although in especially populous areas, such as Auckland, there may be district contests to traverse en route to the regional final. Then there is a national final—the New Zealand Science Fair—from which, this year, two students were chosen to exhibit their work in international fairs.
Around the whole country, as many as 30,000 pupils entered this year’s science fairs. Five years ago, fewer than 10,000 took part. Television programmes such as Beyond 2000 probably account for part of the upsurge in interest, and recent changes to the secondary school science curriculum encouraging a more hands-on, investigative approach to science nicely complement the science fair idea of do-it-yourself experimentation.
Also, over the last two years, the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand has become the major sponsor of science fairs, and has invested heavily in promotion. As well as providing prizes, organisation and publicity, the sponsorship covers production of instruction and information booklets outlining how to undertake a scientific study, and trying to inspire youngsters to participate. Other significant sponsors and organisers include the Royal Society of New Zealand (an august scientific body), Kiwanis and the New Zealand Science Teachers’ Association.
All these organisations perceive scientific and technological prowess as being a cornerstone of future prosperity. Their involvement represents an investment in the nation’s future,as well as being indispensable to the staging, running and orderliness of the huge phenomenon that science fairs have become.
As you stroll past row upon row of displays, marvelling at the mountain of work which each effort represents, you cannot help but notice the distinctive flavour of science fair science. Teenage views of what is fascinating differ from the preoccupations of the newly recycled Crown Research Institutes. Science fair science has a certain quirkiness; it is not yet dominated by concern for the development of the national economy (although this is not absent, either). Starchiness, so pervasive in the language of “adult” science, hasn’t been ingrained into most young people.
Many projects are inspired by teenage problems or interests. Regan McCaffery, a lanky fourth-former from James Cook High in Auckland, investigated breakfast cereals for teenagers. For him the vital considerations were cost, taste, nutritional value for teenagers, and “how well it fills you up”.
“What’s the use of something that tastes great if you are still hungry after a decent plateful?” he feelingly pointed out. The results of his thorough research should be of real interest to the parents of starving giants everywhere. Toasted muesli flakes are the only thing to be eating! Apparently, though, any form of sustenance is acceptable to science fair groupies, because Regan had to keep replacing sample bags of all types of cereals, which were regularly torn from his display.
Another pair of young investigators tackled a common teenage blight in “Agonising Acne—is there a Cure?” and claimed their natural concoction proved at least as effective as any other treatment. In the interests of experimental science, a Form 1 girl, whose project was entitled “Smelly Feet”, refrained from washing one sock-clad foot for two weeks. Every four days her sock was used to inoculate a fresh agar culture plate with microbes. “After the two weeks my foot was dry, red and itchy, and smelt really bad,” she commented. “Wearing shoes makes your foot sweat, which encourages bacterial growth and produces the smell.”
Young women are evidently more preoccupied with this sort of problem than are their male counterparts (who tend to offer projects on the best material for trolley brakes, for example). A duo of seventh formers from an Auckland girls’ school undertook the not dissimilar “Armpit Experiment”, to test the claims of deodorant manufacturers that their products inhibit bacterial growth. Each day the girls wore a different underarm deodorant, inoculating a culture plate at day’s end with surviving bacteria. Cool Charm, followed by Brut 33, proved most effective at decimating the unwanted bacteria in this demanding test.
For parents who are always badgering their offspring to “turn that music down!”, or demanding, “How can you concentrate with that racket going on?” Simon Pearson’s project would be of interest—although its conclusions might be unwelcome. Simon (Form 2), convinced that rock music did not impair his mental faculties, decided to put the matter to the test. He invited people of different ages to solve a set of mathematical problems, either in silence or while subjected to loud rock music through headphones. The distressing news (for parents) was that all age groups, but especially adolescents, performed better with the music on!
More than a few projects took up the cudgels on behalf of the consumer. A project entitled “Buy Peppermint Extra! Why?” revealed that at a rate of one chew per second, this variety of chewing gum did indeed last longer than others. Other consumer-minded entrants investigated the sugar content in soft drinks, the manufacture of water-based paints, burn-resistant fabrics and the universal question: which toilet paper is best?
If these topics seem too prosaic, then how about “Electromagnetic Mass Launching”—an electronic device which launches multiple projectiles without the need for propellants, “Useful Products from Onion Skins”, “Is the Auckland Harbour Bridge Safe?” and the vaguely menacing “Are Washing Powders Really what they Seem?” Wouldn’t more accurate weather forecasts be a boon? In “No Pain, No Rain”, Brendon Foy compared the accuracy of weather forecasts given by TV and the NZ Herald with his mother’s predictions based on her arthritis pains. Mum proved more accurate than either the satellite photos or weather maps.
One ingenious entrant discovered a new use for tall modern office buildings. Calculating how high his experimental rocket was flying proved difficult, so he chose to test it beside Auckland’s civic administration building. As in many similar buildings, every floor is externally identical, and delineated by repeating panels. A good estimate of their height can be gleaned from the ground floor, and then it’s just a matter of counting up the requisite number of panels to determine the rocket’s peak altitude. Apparently, no one considered it in the least remarkable that a smallish boy should be firing missiles at the building.
Sometimes project outcomes are dramatically unexpected. Last year Andrew Tagg from Dunedin wanted to compare the efficacy of a range of commercial sunscreens. For added interest, he included as controls a few common household products, among them honey and Vegemite. The more effective sunscreens contained para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) but, astonishingly, Vegemite outperformed even the best. It proved to contain even higher levels of PABA than the regular sunblocks.
Perhaps prompted by the adversity faced by the principal sponsor this last winter, a number of students were moved to investigate new and alternative energy sources. Projects entitled “Citric Electricity”, “Sun Power Hot or Not?” “Cold Baths by Candle Light”, “Beer-Powered Radio”, “The Water Wheel”, “Windmills” and “Do Grass Clippings Produce Energy?” featured in this year’s fairs. Fourth former Joanne Chilvers, who carried out the last project on this list, explained: “Grass clippings give off quite a bit of heat in a compost bin, so I made an insulated box to see if they would produce sufficient heat to cook something. I was surprised to discover that the box stayed at about 40 degrees C for several days, and that was enough to cook a potato.” Were there any difficulties? “Well . . . it did take overnight to cook, and tasted of mouldy grass (despite being wrapped in tin foil) but it was cooked!”
In many of the science fairs, even at school level (some schools require students to produce a project as part of their year’s work), there may be 200-300 projects entered by pupils from forms one to seven, and on every subject imaginable. To simplify judging, entries are grouped into categories such as marine biology, medical science, human body systems, environment, earth science, food technology, engineering, inventions and geography, as well as the more traditional categories of chemistry, energy and light.
Before the fairs are opened to public viewing, a morning is set aside for a panel of judges to interview the pupils and examine their handiwork. During the afternoon, when the students have left, further inspection and deliberation takes place before the judges make their decisions.
At regional fairs a first ($80), second ($50) and third ($30) prize is awarded in each of the many categories and subcategories, together with a series of special awards, such as one for most innovative scientific thinking. Category prizes are awarded for excellence without regard to the age of the exhibitor. However, one award is made to the best entry from each form, disregarding categories.
Eventually, the judges must really work hard to choose the best overall exhibits to represent the region at the national fair. These students get all-expenses-paid trips to the host city (this year, Wellington), where they are billeted with a family for up to a week.
Since only 36 exhibits are displayed at the NZ Science Fair, it is no small achievement to get there. Most of the regional fairs contribute one or two entries, with a few extras coming from the big metropolitan centres.
Many factors are taken into account in selecting award winners: scientific approach, resourcefulness, thoroughness, amount of work involved, originality, insightfulness of conclusions, quality of the display, familiarity of the exhibitor with the project area, as well as the competence of their verbal presentation, their age and a host of other things.
As in the regional finals, judges interrogate the students in the morning, gauging their understanding of the subject and grasp of experimental nuances, but also probing for unexpurgated ignorance, confusion, weakness in the data, or evidence of unseemly assistance. They conclude their demanding day by arguing the merits and demerits of each project among themselves, in an attempt to match exhibitors to awards.
Worthwhile prizes are presented at the national fair. The top two provide trips to prestigious international science fairs in Mississippi and San Diego. Then there is a trip to Australia, several awards of $1000 each and a $400 one, all with accompanying silver medallions.
What projects most impressed the judges in 1992?
Bonita Lovatt, a 14-year-old Aucklander, received the Institute of Chemistry award of $400 for a method of preparing an environmentally friendly fungicide, cupric hydroxide, by electrolysis. Although she had some direction from a patent, a feature of her project was the use of household plumbing fittings, soft-drink bottles and garden hoses in her chemical “factory”.
Noticing how a single light-emitting diode (LED) left a trail of light when waved in a darkened room proved the inspiration for a most ingenious exhibit, “Persistent Messages”, entered by 17-year-old Nigel Thomas of Whangarei. Nigel attached seven green LEDs in a single vertical column on the periphery of a squat black cylinder. The cylinder was rotated at 20 revs per second, and a small computer he had programmed switched each LED on and off, at a rate of some 15,000 switches per second. Using this equipment, Nigel could type short phrases into the computer and have them displayed in stationary or slowly rotating green letters on the disc. (The effect arises from our eyes’ inability to resolve events happening at frequencies greater than 16 per second. For the same reason, we don’t see fluorescent light bulbs flashing on and off at 50 times each second.)
Nigel suggested that his device could be readily upgraded to a much larger or more three-dimensional array, and be used in outdoor advertising displays.
This was not Nigel’s first taste of national competition. He was selected to attend the 1991 NZ Science Fair with a project involving a model car that steered itself along a painted line on the road. This year he received the $1000 Royal Society award.
Winner of the travel award to Australia was one of the younger entrants, 13-year-old Nicola West from Ashburton Intermediate. Her investigation was prompted by a very practical concern: the short lifespan of her togs in the local swimming pool. Both Nicola and her brother belonged to a swimming club, where she swam for four and a half hours per week, he longer. Whereas her rather expensive bathing suits sometimes lasted a mere six weeks before losing their shape, his cheaper ones were close to immortal. Why? Investigation revealed that hers were 80% nylon, 20% lycra, whereas his were just nylon. Could it be that the chlorine in the water affected the lycra? Nicola tested this possibility using squares of bathing suit material obtained from the manufacturer. Each sample was subjected to cycles of exposure to either a particular chlorine concentration or a certain temperature. Loss of elasticity was measured by how far a hockey ball stretched the squares of fabric while clamped in a wooden frame.
Increased temperature had a modest effect in reducing the stretch of the fabric, but that of chlorine was much more marked, and at levels not far removed from those prevailing in the pool. Upon completion of the project, Nicola had words with the pool attendant, and the Ashburton pool now has a machin that measures and adds chlorine automatically, as required, resulting in a two-thirds reduction in chlorine use. Will Nicola’s togs stay in shape longer? Time will tell.
The two travel awards to the United States were each won by a 17-year-old girl. (Over the last three years fractionally over half of those reaching the national fair have been girls.) Joanne Holden of Wellington must have taken over her family’s kitchen for much of the eight months it took to complete her project. Searching for an environmentally safe detergent, she made aqueous extracts of more than 30 species of native plants by cooking them up on the stove, then testing their detergent properties in a whole battery of tests. Most effective proved to be Pomaderris kumeraho—known from old as “gumdigger’s soap”—but some of the Pittosporum species were not without merit.
Joanne is not the first of her family to reach the NZ Science Fair. Most of her four brothers have preceded her, and Joanne herself has made it previously, though last year she was too busy with school exams to prepare an entry. Quite a few families and schools seem to feature regularly in science fairs. Is this success attributable to pushy parents, keen teachers or endogenous enthusiasm? “My parents aren’t especially interested in science,” Joanne said. “It’s just us kids who seem keen.”
The judges decided that the best overall project this year was that entered by Kate Cotter from New Ply‑mouth. She undertook a study into a problem of concern to all sheep farmers: nematode worm resistance to sheep drenches. Several such worm species infect various vital organs in sheep, causing severe debilitation, even death. The worms produce copious eggs that pass out through the droppings on to pasture, to be ingested by other sheep. Farmers use drenches in an attempt to eliminate the worms, but the worms develop resistance, in which case the farmer should switch to a different type of drench.
Kate counted numbers of worm eggs in sheep droppings from five flocks, then re-counted following drenching with one of the drench families. (This isn’t quite as repulsive as it sounds—eggs can be washed out of faecal material and counted in a special counting chamber under a microscope.) She concluded that “drenching was very effective on one farm, partially effective on three others, and quite ineffective on one” (her parents’!).
As the new year approaches, students around the country are already preparing for next year’s round of fairs. They happen between May and October each year, enlivening the winter months. So, as you lie on the beach this summer, spare a thought for what you might enter in 1993, remembering that good projects always require at least three months’ labour. And don’t forget to smear on plenty of Vegemite!