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Something in the water

Jackie Cosh on the Royal Society of Chemistry's global water experiment for the International Year of Chemistry

Jackie Cosh on the Royal Society of Chemistry's global water experiment for the International Year of Chemistry

One billion people in the world do not have fresh drinking water. For children in Scotland this can be hard to comprehend. Water here is safe to drink and it is never rationed as it is in some countries.

When S1 and S2 pupils from St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh took part in the Royal Society of Chemistry's global water experiment for the 2011 International Year of Chemistry last session, they started off with little knowledge about the global problem, and didn't know much about the processes which water undergoes before we can drink it.

The Water of Leith runs near the school and so offered the ideal location to begin the project by taking samples. It also shattered any illusions the girls had about the local water being clean and fresh.

Heather Husch teaches chemistry and was one of the four teachers who oversaw the project. She says that the girls hadn't really thought about where water comes from, and that going down to collect samples was an education in itself. "We wanted to show them a water source. Even locally the water going along the river isn't crystal. A lot of effort was involved. The girls were surprised to see the state of the river."

Schools throughout the world signed up for the global challenge, which was developed by Unesco and the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) Committee on Chemistry Education to inspire children and educate them about the importance of chemistry in their everyday lives.

Four experiments were designed to demonstrate the role chemistry plays in water quality and purification. Over a number of weeks, the groups measured acidity and salinity; purified water by filtration; and purified water using the sun's rays.

For the latter experiments the girls were required to build a solar still. At this point technologies teacher John Hughes assisted them. "We did this as an engineering project, as part of the Young Engineering Club which many of the girls are involved in," he says. They researched different types of solar stills, but in the end chose the simplest type and they built one which was one-and-a-half metres long by half-a-metre wide. Most of the work they did themselves, but I assisted with parts."

When I visited, the girls were preparing posters to take with them to showcase their work at the Big Bang Scotland event in Perth in June. While one girl was putting together the results table, another talked me through the process of salination and the experiments they had conducted. "Once we were all finished, we looked at the results," said Emma Barnes, 14. "We were very surprised as each of the groups got slightly different results. The salt left varied, when it should have been quite consistent."

Joelle Nicholson's class also took part in the challenge. She says: "It has really got them to think about water and where it comes from. We used different ways of filtering the water, not just the most obvious method."

Twelve girls were chosen from the year group to go to Perth for the presentation. "In many ways it has been an opportunity to communicate with other schools, and potentially translate into German to discuss with our partner school in Germany," says Ms Nicholson. "The RSC has an interactive map of schools involved in the project and we can compare and contrast results."

Miss Husch also emphasises the global nature of the students getting involved in examining a commodity which for many countries of the world is a treasured resource with clean water not always being easily accessible. "It is of international concern," she says. "We are lucky that we have water available and we explain to the girls that while it is simple here, this is not the case everywhere."

Science fair

The International Year of Chemistry aims to publicise the huge part chemistry plays in meeting world needs, to engage people in chemistry and enthuse them about the subject.

The water challenge is one of several activities organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry to celebrate IYC2011. All are organised around the following themes: the human body; sustainable energy; and conservation of scarce natural resources.

In the water experiment, pupils around the world have been exploring water as a resource using RSC-produced worksheets and lesson plans. Results are keyed into the website and can be compared to those from other schools worldwide.

On 13 June, the pupils from St George's School took their project to the Big Bang Science Fair Scotland event at Perth Concert Hall. The second such event to be held in Scotland, it has been expanded from an award ceremony for the Crest awards, to a day that showcases science and engineering talent, with workshops and activities on throughout the day.

As well as six Crest prizes, other prizes awarded included the Young Engineers for Britain and Best Overall Science Project 2011. Approximately 70 judges from both education and industry attended.


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