How fishy are prawn crackers? This inspired theme for a winning science project began when Katy Steel, a student at Hutchesons' Grammar School in Glasgow, was eating a packet of prawn cocktail crisps.
"We started talking about how much fish is in fish fingers, and then someone said, 'How fishy are prawn crackers?'" she says.
Katy, and fellow fifth-formers Emma Lindsay and Andrew Adam (equivalent to Year 11 in England), decided to find out; and so began a project that saw national success in the Pupil Researcher Initiative (PRI), last autumn.
Having scaled these heights, the team is now working towards a British Academy CREST (Creativity in Science amp; Technology) gold award in April.
The path to PRI success began when Katy's team won the Scottish finals, and went on to represent Scotland in the British finals at London's Royal Institute. There they presented their findings through a poster display where they had to field questions, for which they lifted first prize; and through a 10-minute PowerPoint and verbal presentation, for which they received a special commendation.
The back of the packet would have told the students the crackers' prawn content. But the team adopted a scientific approach by investigating the product's prawn protein content. They did this using Agarose gels and a colorimeter - initially under the guidance of Martin Dougall (now head of biology at Glasgow High School) and, latterly, biology teacher John Di Mambro.
"Prawn crackers don't promise 100 per cent prawn, but you would have hoped for more than we found," says Emma. After much research, the team concluded there was a maximum 0.3 per cent prawn protein in the average pack.
Moreover, in another experiment, they found prawn brain and eyes have the highest protein content - 30 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. The team wondered therefore whether some prawn protein in crackers was from these sources.
Dr Maria Jackson, of the Biomedical amp; Life Sciences Department at Glasgow University, acted as the students' mentor. She came to the school several times to chat to them about their findings; they in turn visited the university to discuss experiments.
"I was very impressed," she says, adding that they were enthusiastic about the project and finding out things new to them. "Also, it gives the students a chance to interact with university staff so they know university is not some ivory tower."
Both Di Mambro and Dougall acknowledge that entering such competitions is labour intensive and time consuming. "It requires a huge commitment from the teachers," says Dougall. "Having said that, I think the benefits - especially in terms of the profile of the department and the profile of the school - are huge."
Katy, Emma and Andrew reckon, collectively, they have devoted 450 hours across more than a year to their project. So why do it, when they already have a crowded timetable?
Di Mambro believes that the competitions afford the opportunity to stretch students intellectually and practically. "They are doing things they could never do in school," he says.
"These are students who can cope easily with the normal requirements of school. In many cases, what these students need - and get - from this, is something that will stretch them."
Dougall agrees, but also cautions that teachers may not necessarily have the expertise to help in more complex areas. And that is where the value of the university link comes to the fore.
The concept of PRI and CREST might sound elitist. But CREST runs at bronze, silver and gold levels. "You can actually take a very, very young group - even a first year group who are not that academic - and do a bronze award," says Di Mambro. Staff also benefit: interacting with fellow teachers at events is an excellent means of finding different ways of doing things.
Science projects enable students to develop an ability to communicate, to delegate, to work independently and as a team, to undertake research and to put together reports in a scientific way. In the prawn project, links to the exam curriculum were minimal. "The whole idea is to look for something that is offbeat," says Di Mambro.
For any project, the initial parameters need to be flexible. Dougall says they usually originate as a vague idea, then develop as the students discover things. "The whole idea of grinding up prawns and looking at the protein content of the different parts was not something they had envisaged," he says.
The team's communication skills also helped. "They came up with some super ideas for their presentations," says Dr Jackson, who makes special mention of the entertaining way they assumed the mantle of positive and negative charges to demonstrate one of their experiments.
"You can be the best scientist in the world, but if you can't communicate what you're doing then it's not really any use at all," says Andrew.
Communication skills, talking to others and getting over the fear of public speaking were, he said, things they had all learned through the project.
John Di Mambro's tips for competition success:
* Select a topic away from the curriculum, affording the chance to study something new and develop novel practical skills.
* Ensure the team get on well together. No one should be dominant.
* Ensure the school can support the project.
* Develop links with universities; they are usually happy to be involved.
* Liaise with other schools, particularly those with a successful track record.
* Practice presentations to develop skills in answering questions.
Presenting for peers and adults (scientists and non-scientists) will help teams become fluent.
* Spontaneity is key, but sequencing must be prepared carefully.
* Remember the commitment required by staff and students. These projects are long-term, inevitably requiring after school sessions, but the benefits are enormous.
* Inspired? Want to know more? Want to exchange ideas? John will be delighted to hear from you: email@example.com
In your crackers: prawn material (3-25 per cent) including protein (0.3 per cent), tapioca starch, salt, flavourings.
Contacts For details on the PRI, contact Alison Walker on 0114 225 3791 or visit www.shu.ac.ukpri CREST Awards website: www.the-ba.net Hutchesons': firstname.lastname@example.org