Todd McCracken

All the fun of the (science) fair

Around the country, young researchers are taking science out of the classroom and putting it on display.

Written by       Photographed by Michael Schneider

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!

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