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22/11/2014

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National Science + Engineering Competition

Jon Fitzmaurice celebrates the passion of the National Science + Engineering Competition

Jon Fitzmaurice celebrates the passion of the National Science + Engineering Competition.

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This year, we saw hundreds of amazing projects being presented by young people from all over the country, at the finals of the National Science + Engineering Competition at The Big Bang Fair.

A panel of judges spent hours examining the projects and quizzing finalists, and the ten best projects were put forward to our panel of celebrity judges, who included Professor Brian Cox, Sir Tim Hunt and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock.

Passion and curiosity

All the shortlisted projects had been inspired by real passion, interest and in many cases, a burning curiosity that had driven the finalist to try and answer a question, or solve a problem, that was important to them.

Take Fred Turner, for example. He made a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine:  a DNA-replicator that typically costs hospitals thousands of pounds. Fred made one in his garage, spending only a few hundred.

Hugely impressive in its own right, what really made Fred’s project stand out, both to the judges and the media, was the story behind it.

Red-haired brother

At 17, Fred’s short, brown hair is decidedly unremarkable – a sharp contrast to his younger brother Gus, whose shock of pre-Raphaelite ginger locks are hard to miss. Spurred on by a desire to detect quite why their hair was so different (or perhaps just looking for a legitimate excuse to describe his brother as a mutant),  Fred set about building the clever piece of kit that would allow him to carry out his own genetic tests on Gus.

He was indeed able to identify that Gus had a mutated gene, which gave him red hair. His efforts also led to him being selected as the 2013 UK Young Engineer of the Year.

Flamingoes

Emily O’Regan was selected as the 2013 UK Young Scientist of the Year for a project in conservation. She took part in a Nuffield research placement, looking at the breeding habits of a flock of Chilean flamingos at Washington Wetland Centre, in Tyne and Wear.

Emily describes how her passion for animals started at a young age, when she would spend hours happily wandering round the garden narrating wildlife documentaries in the style of David Attenborough.  So in her teenage years she seized the opportunity to work with the flamingoes, which feature on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ‘red list’ of threatened species. She monitored the flock, and spoke to a range of experts to try and deduce why the flock were no longer breeding.

She discovered that lower temperatures correlated with less courtship activity, and therefore less breeding. It also became clear from the flock, that the presence of seagulls disturbed normal courtship displays, and again, led to less breeding.

These were just two of the projects that demonstrate how much can be achieved by a young person who has that passion and curiosity to engage with science and engineering.

Project opportunities

There are lots of great programmes out there that can offer inspiration and project opportunities for teenagers, such as the Nuffield placements, and our own CREST scheme (which both of our winners this year had come through.)  Based on what we’ve learnt in previous years, the National Science + Engineering Competition has this year developed a Challenge Pack, which alongside our CREST project ideas, can be used as a starting point for project work.

However, these schemes can only continue to be successful as long as young children are filled with a passion and enthusiasm for science, and encouraged to express and act on their natural curiosity.

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Jon Fitzmaurice
Jon Fitzmaurice is National Science + Engineering Competition Project Manager at the British Science Association and tweets at @NSECUK
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