Students' interest in creating a sports drink led to them winning a prestigious prize and creating a product that has medicinal uses in the developing world. Chris Fautley reports.
A simple investigation by five East Sussex students into the rehydration properties of sports drinks has ballooned into a prospective life saver with international potential. Like all the best ideas, it started in a small way, says Steve Cross, head of science at Bexhill High School, an 11-16 comprehensive.
"We were talking about alcohol," he explains, "and we asked, 'How come, if you're drinking, you're dehydrated?' " Out of this question was born the school's entry in last year's Zeneca Life Science competition which aims to promote science as an exciting subject.
The school's project was to create a simple, effective sport drink that would also have rehydration benefits in the developing world in the treatment of cholera and diarrhoea. Their work gained them first place over 45 finalists, whose entries included an examination of why woollens fade and how to extract juice from apples efficiently.
Now, 16 months after the project's inception, the Year 10 team of Richard Bayes, Alex Davies, Hannah Eldridge, Nicola Fincham and Amy Reeve-Fowkes find themselves at the centre of a seemingly boundless success story.
"We all play sport. We thought it was an interesting project," said 15-year-old Alex, adding that they considered it more relevant to people than some other projects they had seen.
In addition to conducting their own experiments, the students wrote to athletes such as Chris Boardman and Sally Gunnell to see if they found sports drinks beneficial as rehydrators. An accident and emergency consultant at their local hospital who has a special interest in dehydration also provided valuable help in explaining the physiology.
The students concluded that a simple, cheap drink of their own design was better than anything available commercially. It was not, they explained, a matter of some vital missing ingredient in the commercial product - more a question of what could be taken out.
Ultimately the team envisage thousands of litres of their rehydrator being produced simply by adding tablets to water supplies and having it administered from field hospitals. However, they also recognise that, ironically, one of the greatest causes of dehydration in the developing world is the water itself, because it is contaminated. So they contacted Southern Water for guidance on filtration systems.
Steve Cross says that the water authority was quick to spot the project's commercial potential both at home and abroad, so at this stage the exact formula remains a secret - at least until it has been patented.
The benefits to the prize winning students have been huge; they will shortly address a science and technology in education conference at the Royal Society, and in August will represent Britain at an international competition hosted by Stockholm, which the Swedish royal family will attend.
Science teacher Steve Hardie said: "We have seem them develop into pupils who are outstandingly capable of communicating ideas, not just scientific ideas, but any ideas, to anybody who cares to listen. It's a personal enrichment."
The entire school is enjoying the team's success, which so far has brought in almost pound;2,000 in prize money. Staff have been inundated with requests from students wishing to pursue science as an extra-curricular activity, says Steve Hardie.
Headteacher Mike Conn says the methodology used in the project is beginning to filter into the classroom. "It's the approach, the challenge, about 'going for it' - that ethos about being able to question," he says.
"Students talk about science here as something which is more than an academic process. It's alive. It's an experience they definitely want. They realise it's 'cool' to succeed. It's 'cool' to learn. Science is fun. These five students are part of the cultural change that has been developed towards making science really exciting," he enthuses.
The science department is happy to share its success with other schools. "Phone us," says Steve Cross.
"We'd welcome it," says Mike Conn. "We know full well that sharing these things with other colleagues is beneficial to them and us."
The students seem unfazed by the success of something which Mike Conn suggests has "the same sort of invention value as Cats-eyes". But of one thing they are certain: the project will be non-profit making. Should the commercial rights be sold, any benefit would be ploughed into overseas development.
Bexhill High is now embarking on a new venture in which it has been appointed UK headquarters of the Petits de Broullards, an international organisation of extra-curricular science and technology clubs for young people.
As for the prize-winning students, careers in medicine and sports science are being considered. One quipped, "Any places at NASA?" - mindful, perhaps, that it wasn't just rocket science that put a man on the moon.
For more details of the project contact Steve Cross at Bexhill High School. Tel: 01424 730722. Fax: 01424 212613
* Cut uniform cylinders of potato with a borer.
* Blot dry and weigh each one.
* Place each piece in a sample of sports or any other drink with same volume each time.
* Leave for 24 hours.
* Remove and blot dry.
* Weigh and measure length and diameter.
* If the drink is a good rehydrator, water will enter the potato,causing it to swell. If the drink is a poor rehydrator, the potato will shrink in size.