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The sweat smell of success

It was an innocuous title for a science investigation. The Des Lynam Project, devised by 21 pupils at All Saints RC High School, Kirkby, Merseyside, aimed to compare the effectiveness of a range of antiperspirants.

But the four-month project, named after the sports presenter who starred in TV commercials for Right Guard antiperspirant, hit a sticky patch when tabloid newspapers kicked up a stink over Des's private life, alleging he had been two-timing his wife and putting a stain on the presenter's clean-cut reputation.

However, the 14 and 15-year-olds persevered, and found that Right Guard was best at preventing smelly secretions when the heat is on. Their work has won them one of SmithKline Beecham's five regional Health Matters school awards, set up in 1994 to emphasise the importance of modern health issues to 11 to 17-year-olds. The results are now on display in London, at the Science Museum's Health Matters gallery, alongside the work of the other winners.

Around 2,500 pupils from 200 schools entered the international competition, judged by the Association for Science Education. The competition encourages teamwork and investigative, written and presentation skills. It also gives students an opportunity to conduct research outside the national curriculum, challenging the notion that science is dull and irrelevant to real life.

This year's national award winners, Brakenhale School, from Bracknell, Berkshire, received their prizes from Olympic silver medallist and former world champion hurdler Kriss Akabusi at the end of October.

Dr Teresa McCarthy, director and vice-president of strategy and planning at SmithKline Beecham research and development, says: "Science is fun, and relevant to our everyday lives. This award gives pupils a chance to develop their own research without being told what to do and how to do it." She admits she switched antiperspirants after reading All Saints' results.

Other projects looked at the dangers of ultra violet light, the effects of acidic drinks on teeth, the dangers of bacteria in telephone boxes, whether eating carrots helps people see in the dark and whether people get enough vitamin C in their daily diet.

Caroline McGrath, ASE field officer, says: "It switches pupils on to science. The subject has a poor reputation with teenagers in the western world. Research shows 13-year-olds are cynical. When it makes headlines it's been connected to, for example, BSE and cloning. In contrast, developing countries see science as a saviour - fighting disease and improving sanitation."

Ray Lyons, All Saints' head of science, says: "Few pupils study science A-level because they find the subject difficult. They come from a culture where it's not the done thing to study hard and go on to university. But competitions such as this spark their interest."

The 11 girls and 10 boys in the All Saints team opted for antiperspirants and deodorants after a sweltering summer's day.

They researched the history of antiperspirants, which date back to ancient Rome and Egypt. They tested five brands for effectiveness by spraying filter paper and recording how much water could seep through, to find which brand would block pores most effectively.

They also found deodorants (which do not block pores) as effective as antiperspirants at preventing odours, by growing microbes on bananas, which are moist and acidic - like armpits.

National winners Brakenhale, where almost one in two of the 50 sixth-formers study at least one science A-level, looked at the dangers of UV radiation light in their project, "UV or not UV - That is The Question".

The group of six girls, aged 15 and 16, looked at the effects of UV on living organisms, public awareness of the dangers, and the effectiveness of sunscreen. They were inspired by a day trip to Chessington theme park, in Surrey, when many of the group suffered sunburn.

From the Internet, they found that only since 1987 has the British public known of the dramatic depletion of the ozone layer, linked to a rise in the incidence of skin cancer.

The group devised experiments to test the effect of high UV levels on soil bacteria, cress, Christmas cactus and daphnia. The UV light proved a killer to all but the cactus, which grows wild in countries with high levels of sunshine. Brakenhale's deputy head of science, Dr Elizabeth Oulridge, says:

"We were shocked by the results. This assignment was a learning curve for me as much as the pupils. Science in the national curriculum is very strait-laced. But this assignment gave pupils an experience of real science, where the teacher doesn't know all the answers."

The group also surveyed adults and children in Bracknell to assess how effective they were at protecting themselves from the sun. Results revealed, as expected, that adults are better and children worry less.

Finally, an experiment looked at the protection offered by the range of factors of two sunscreen brands. Using black paper as an artificial skin, the pupils compared how well the creams blocked UV rays. They found using less of a higher factor lotion was better than using more of a lower factor, and that creams worked well even when they were aged through heating.

"We had some technical problems," admits Ceri Daniels, 16, who was dragged into the project by her enthusiastic friends. "It took several attempts to set up the bacteria experiment. But we had to persevere. Before, this subject hadn't really interested me. But it was great fun, because it wasn't just a case of following someone else's instructions."

The results were analysed by the rest of the year group. The project pupils also produced an awareness leaflet and set up a Web page to educate others on the dangers of overexposure.

Interesting results were also uncovered by 14 pupils (nine girls and five boys), aged 14 and 15, at Cardinal Heenan High School, Leeds. Their project, "The Effect of Acid on Pigs' Teeth", looked at the damage to teeth caused by fizzy drinks and unsweetened fruit juice.

Three fruit juices, two fizzy drinks and three types of water were tested. The teeth were immersed in the liquids and left for 24 hours. Then they were removed, dried out for three days, and weighed.

The results were revealing. The teeth immersed in orange, apple and grapefruit juice lost45 to 50 per cent of their weight. Those in fizzy drinks lost between 19 and 45 per cent. Lemonade caused more de-mineralisation than cola, due, the students believe, to the presence of citric acid. "We were staggered," says science teacher Melanie Mills. "Some of the teeth were so soft you could squeeze them."

The group has written to the British Dental Association asking that warnings about fruit juice and fizzy drinks be a clear part of dental advice and included on drinks packaging, and has set up a Web site with advice.

Mrs Mills says: "The pupils were very enthusiastic about the project. At first they were interested in the gory bits, such as cleaning the teeth. But they eventually appreciated how relevant science is to their own lives.

"They found the investigation, and criticism of their work, difficult. But it's made them feel like real scientists."

Andrew Barnes, 14, says: "Some of my friends said it would be dead boring, and asked me to quit so I could play football instead. But it was interesting, especially when the tooth in the cola turned black. I enjoyed handling the teeth and seeing the changes. I've told my friends, who didn't like science, about the results. And a few of them have changed their minds."

Other finalists included Scoil Mhuire School, from Co Roscommon, Ireland.They looked at the potential spread of disease through using public telephone boxes. They found several species of bacillus, as well as streptococcus and staphylococcus aureus, on the mouthpieces of telephones. They believe these can cause disease, and conclude that a curved mouthpiece stores more bacteria than a modern flat one. They recommend wiping the phone before and after use and not placing your mouth too close to the mouthpiece.

South Wiltshire Grammar School for Girls, Salisbury, Wiltshire, investigated the power of carrots to help you see in the dark. They found a definite link - the more carrots we eat, the less light we need before we can see in the dark. But as with all the schools, they conceded further research was necessary.

Up to 10 groups can enter the 'Health Matters' School Awards from any one school. The national winner receives Pounds 2,000 plus a Pounds 500 cheque to go to a medical research charity of their choice. Five regional winners win Pounds 500 and 10 runners-up receive Pounds 250.There is a Pounds 500 prize for students with special needs. There is also a post-16 category for GNVQ and A-level students. The groups must have a minimum of five students. The maximum is a whole class. Students are judged on teamwork, investigative skills, innovation, accuracy and design and presentation. Entries for 1999 must be submitted by June 11, 1999. Further information from Caroline McGrath at the ASE on 01932 567243

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