SCIENCE COMPETITIONS NURTURE VITAL LEARNING SKILLS
Competing in science fairs can teach kids life skills in a way that textbooks cannot
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.