Are fresh peas better for you than frozen? What is a prime cause of back pain among schoolchildren? Does chewing gum relieve stress as advertisements claim? These were some of the important issues explored by the top projects entered for the 1999 "Health Matters" School Awards, run by the Association for Science Education and sponsored by SmithKline Beecham.
To their surprise, regional winners, St Edmund Arrowsmith Royal Catholic High School, near Wigan, found that chewing gum does reduce stress. Anne Cunningham, aged 14, one of the 16 pupils aged 11 to 14 who worked on "Stress Alert", elaborates: "We tested the heart rates of subjects resting, reading a book with difficult words and playing computer games with and without chewing gum and also with herbal tea. The heart rate was lower when they chewed gum." Her science teacher, Ian Cassidy, observed a real enthusiasm for science emerging from the students' extra-curricular work:
"Doing the project has kept them keen. They are still coming to science club outside class."
An alarming increase in back problems among young people was charted in "A Pain in the Back", another regional winner. Eight 14 and 15-year-old pupils from Coltness High School, Wishaw, Lanarkshire, conducted a whole-school survey, which revealed the increase was due to the weight of school bags (up to 8 kilos), incorrect posture, type of bag and how they are lifted and carried. Rowan Smith, aged 15, says: "We measured students' height and weight and the weight of the bags. We also weighed them with one leg on one set of scales, the other on another and found a significant shift in weight distribution. And we discovered that many young people carry the bag over just one shoulder because of peer pressure. One consequence could be arthritis, which is quite common in young people."
The work has been sent to local authority health experts in the hope that action will be taken. Jim Percival, principal chemistry teacher, says:
"There is no legislation about this problem and many schools, including ours, do not provide lockers. Within the chemistry department we are planning to buy a separate set of textbooks to keep at the school and help lighten the load."
The overall winning project, "Is there C in a pea?", was researched by six 14 and 15-year-old girls from Stourport-on-Severn High School. They examined the vitamin C content of fresh, frozen and tinned peas, using a blue dye which turned pink in the presence of vitamin C and discovered more in frozen peas (packed within two hours of picking) than in any other kind and least in fresh peas, especially if opened and left in heat and light for 24 hours. Roger Fryer, the school's head of science says: "There was huge enthusiasm because although it was strictly science and research based, it was about a real health issue." The Stourport students won pound;2,000 for their school and pound;500 for charity at the awards ceremony held at the Science Museum in London.
The competition is open to 11 to 16-year-olds. Judging takes place in June. Details: Caroline McGrath, ASE, The Science Centre, The Runnymede Centre, Chertsey Road, Addlestone, Weybridge, Surrey XT15 2EP. Tel: 01932 567243