On the wings of science

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My kids yearn to visit the United States. It is the home of such cultural icons as Baywatch and Coca-Cola, rock groups too numerous to mention, fine cuisine such as KFC, and just about every­thing that’s cool.

Cruel parent that I am, I tell them that their best shot at getting there is to win the annual National Science and Technology Fair for school pupils. And I’m serious. It wouldn’t be easy, because there are a lot of excellent entries, but it’s far from impossible.

First, though, you must choose the right sort of project. Don’t cut out a few New Zealand Geographic pictures of Mt Ruapehu erupting, combine them with a papier mâché  model of a volcano and add a bit of text from Microsoft Encarta if you wish to succeed. Instead, embark on your own investigation or technologi­cal development, and allocate plenty of time to do it. A few days or even weeks of intermittent effort won’t be enough. Three months is a minimum, and a year is preferable. To the judges, every line of your own carefully investigated results is worth pages lifted from a book.

Learn some lessons from the national finalists in last year’s contest, held in December in Christchurch.

Main prizewinner Andrew Drake’s project was based on observations he had first made in 1994 of mangroves growing, not in their habitual mud, but on the intertidal lava fields of Rangitoto Island. Subse­quently, he has found mangroves colonising other Auckland intertidal lava fields. But they do not seem to be just any mangroves. The rock-loving variety is a hitherto unrecorded pros­trate form that lacks a trunk. Since silt readily builds up around its many stems, Drake predicts that this plant could result in the burial of all Auckland’s estuarine volcanic foreshores in the not-too-distant future.

Arama Ehau and Hamiora Werahiko (Rotorua Boys High), studied burial of a different type: that of food in a hangi. Back in 1994, they began assessing different rock types for their ability to store heat and release it gradually, using simulated hangi boxes and temperature probes. Andesite and mica schist proved the most effective rock types. Over the last two years, they have concentrated on what types of wood best heat the stones. While tawa, rata, manuka, kanuka and pine all scored well in test situations, rata, manuka, and kanuka per­formed best in the heat of the hangi. However, to the students’ astonishment, when the amounts of wood used were converted from volume (the way firewood is sold) to weight, an almost identical amount of heat was produced by the same weight of wood, regardless of species.

Truth often leads in unexpected directions. Sometimes in lower echelon Science Fair projects it’s hard to even see which way it has gone, but not in the national finals. However, that’s not to say that every­thing here always goes as planned. Nicholas Lloyd of Tauranga tried to figure out whether the terpenes present in waste citrus fruit could be extracted and put to use.

While he succeeded in extracting the oils and finding uses for them, you had to have a lot of tangelo peel to retrieve not much citrus oil. When he tried to chemically synthesise some of the constituents, success eluded him. But there is no doubting that he learnt a lot.

Reuben Miller’s wood gasification machine tried to use heat from an engine exhaust to generate combus­tible gases such as carbon monoxide from waste wood chips. Although the levels of flammable gases increased in his heated samples, the gases given off could not be ignited so it’s back to the drawing board.

Less open-ended investi­gations which lack the risks and possible rewards of these more ambitious projects are probably the most popular type of entry. Comparing weight gains of drenched and undrenched lambs over winter (the more expensive drench was worth the extra money), comparing house paints, analysing calligraphy inks, finding substances that will protect vegetables from assault by chooks (but am I going to enjoy lettuce that has been sprayed with lavender, fish fertiliser or seaweed manure?), develop­ing nesting boxes for the Department of Conservation to use in bird transfers, studying respiration in backswimmers, examining drinking water for harmful bacteria and evaluating possible antidotes for nettle stings were all grist for projects that made it to this year’s finals.

Many legitimate projects straddle the fuzzy boundary between science and technol­ogy, and awards are made for technological projects. Overall winner here was Sarah Snell from VVhangarei, with a bathroom fan pow­ered by shower water. Unfortunately, her house lacks mains pressure hot water, so in the interests of making the fan work effectively, cool showers were necessary. A pair of Marlborough girls developed an improved design of school backpack that put less stress on backs, and was very  highly rated by most pupils who tried it. Ruyan Mendis and Anthony Lander constructed a cricket bowling machine with which they ascertained that swing in the flight of the ball depends on the seam, and how it is angled by the bowler. The seam produces turbulence, which causes the ball to deviate from a straight line. A slower bowling speed and an old, rough ball maximise the deviation.

Otago intermediate school pupils Anna Clague and Amanda Wast developed a high calcium drink that teenage girls would enjoy as well as knowing that it contributed to bone bulk, heading off osteoporosis later in life. “Apricool” was a mixture of yoghurt, fruit juice and fruit purée that proved very popular with their friends and taste panel.

One of the fascinations of the National Science and Technology Fair is looking at the ages of the exhibitors and their geographic spread. All seventh formers from Auckland Grammar and Christ’s College? Not a bit of it. Morrinsville College was the only school to have three national finalists. Others came from Whangaparaoa Primary, Waimea College, Napier Intermediate, Rangi Ruru Girls School, Tyndale Park Christian School, Manurewa High School, Levin Interme­diate and Okaihau College, to name a few, and the main prize winners hailed from Whangarei Girls High (Sarah Snell) and Carey College, a small Christian school in Auckland (Andrew Drake).

In the last couple of years there have been markedly more entries from younger pupils, and fewer from seniors. In local fairs with perhaps a total of 20,000 entries nationwide three­ quarters of entries now come from fourth form or more junior students.

Start thinking now. Projects usually need to be ready by August, and you won’t make it to America without a major effort.

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