Com­pet­ing in science fairs can teach kids life skills in a way that text­books can­not

New Straits Times - - News -

WHAT are the pos­si­bil­i­ties of durian seeds, or per­haps the sago starch, be­ing used as an al­ter­na­tive to re­duce our depen­dence on plas­tics? What if the leaves of the rambu­tan tree that con­tain gal­lic acid — a com­pound with an­tiox­i­dant prop­er­ties — could be ef­fec­tive against can­cer?

Th­ese were some ques­tions that our sec­ondary school stu­dents sought to an­swer, and later with their re­search find­ings, led them to be fi­nal­ists of the In­tel In­ter­na­tional Science and En­gi­neer­ing Fair (In­tel ISEF) 2017 all the way in Los An­ge­les last week.

In­tel ISEF is the world’s largest in­ter­na­tional pre-col­lege science com­pe­ti­tion, or­gan­ised and pro­duced by a non-profit group, So­ci­ety for Science & the Pub­lic, since 1950. In 1997, In­tel took on the ti­tle spon­sor­ship to fur­ther the ef­fort in en­cour­ag­ing youth to em­brace STEM (Science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics) and high­light the im­por­tance th­ese sub­jects have on fu­ture in­no­va­tions.

Each May, stu­dents se­lected as fi­nal­ists by af­fil­i­ated, lo­cal com­pe­ti­tions from all over the world re­ceive an all-ex­penses-paid trip and con­vene in the United States. At the com­pe­ti­tion, fi­nal­ists are judged by hun­dreds of science, en­gi­neer­ing and in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als.

Last week, 1,778 fi­nal­ists from 78 coun­tries at­tended In­tel ISEF for five days to com­pete for nearly US$4 mil­lion (RM17.2 mil­lion) in awards and prizes. Malaysian stu­dents have been a part of this science com­pe­ti­tion since 1999.

This year, of the 13 Malaysian fi­nal­ists pre­sent­ing eight science projects, two teams won third place un­der the Phys­i­cal Science cat­e­gory, tak­ing home US$1,000 for each project.

The po­si­tion­ing of th­ese re­search com­pe­ti­tions as science fairs can be mis­un­der­stood and mis­lead­ing. To the unini­ti­ated, they are not all stereo­typ­i­cal images of three-panel dis­play boards and bak­ing-soda vol­ca­noes just be­cause they are high school stu­dents.

This in­ter­na­tional science con­test has a rich legacy and its alumni in­clude Paul L. Mo­drich, a No­bel Prize win­ner for Chem­istry in 2015; Jack An­draka, a prodigy in pan­cre­atic can­cer; and, Alex Deans, the in­ven­tor of the iAid for the vis­ually im­paired.

This year’s first place win­ner, Ivo Zell, 18, from Lorch, Ger­many, who won the US$75,000 Gor­don E. Moore Award, de­signed and con­structed a re­mote-con­trolled pro­to­type of a new “fly­ing wing” air­craft, which has po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions that range from drone de­liv­ery sys­tems to larger air­craft de­sign.

Hav­ing at­tended this science fair twice, once in 2014 and last week, I would liken the fi­nale of the award cer­e­mony to the at­mos­phere of the Grammy

WED­NES­DAY, MAY 24, 2017 Awards, only that this is for young sci­en­tists’ re­search projects.

Con­cep­tu­ally, a science fair project is straight­for­ward. One ap­plies prin­ci­ples that can solve a prob­lem and see the im­pact on the real world.

A stu­dent chooses a sci­en­tific ques­tion he would like to an­swer and then re­search it be­fore for­mu­lat­ing a hy­poth­e­sis and de­sign­ing an ex­per­i­ment. Af­ter writ­ing a re­port to sum­marise this re­search, he per­forms the ex­per­i­ment, draws his con­clu­sions and presents the re­sults on a dis­play board.

The re­search projects can and do fail, some­times end­ing up with find­ings that don’t match ini­tial hy­pothe­ses. In go­ing through the process, stu­dents not only gain hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence on sci­en­tific meth­ods, they must also use crit­i­cal think­ing, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, pre­sen­ta­tion and speak­ing skills, and per­sis­tence.

At the same time, many science fair par­tic­i­pants have few, if any, class­mates en­gaged in re­search. In that case, at­tend­ing re­search com­pe­ti­tion like In­tel ISEF can be an op­por­tu­nity to find friends with sim­i­lar in­ter­ests. They can help stu­dents start build­ing a net­work of sci­en­tific col­leagues and col­lab­o­ra­tors that can en­er­gise and en­hance their sci­en­tific work.

In 2014, Malaysian fi­nal­ists hauled in the big­gest win af­ter 16 years of par­tic­i­pa­tion, with three science projects bag­ging awards at a com­bined value of US$10,500.

Faye Jong Sow Fei, a former stu­dent of SMK Batu Lin­tang in Kuching, Sarawak, re­ceived the most wins for Malaysia in In­tel ISEF’s his­tory.

She re­ceived a First Award of US$3,000 in the En­vi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment Cat­e­gory for her project en­ti­tled “Bio-Waste Ma­te­ri­als as Eco-Friendly Mor­dant in Fab­ric Dye Process”. She also won the Top Win­ner of the Best Cat­e­gory with prizes con­sist­ing of US$5,000, as well as US$1,000 for her school and the af­fil­i­ated fair she rep­re­sents. In ad­di­tion to that, she walked away with an all-ex­penses-paid trip to at­tend the Euro­pean Union Con­test for Young Sci­en­tists in War­saw, Poland.

Prior to her win, Faye spent three years look­ing for nat­u­ral

Ivo Zell, from Ger­many, won the Gor­don E. Moore Award and re­ceived US$75,000 at the In­tel In­ter­na­tional Science and En­gi­neer­ing Fair 2017. He de­signed and con­structed a re­mote-con­trolled pro­to­type of a new ‘fly­ing wing’ air­craft that has po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions that range from drone de­liv­ery sys­tems to larger air­craft de­sign.

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