Science of the times

9th March 2007 at 00:00
From cosmic rays to the efficacy of toilet paper, young Scottish scientists made their mark in the BACrest Awards recently

When the hush settles over the exam hall at the Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh in May, and the Advanced Higher physics candidates turn over the paper, there will be an empty chair among them. For although she has spent the past year working towards this and other exams, Holly Batchelor will not be there. She will be in Albuquerque, USA, at the world's biggest international science and engineering contest.

"It isn't a difficult choice," says Holly, who could win a share of the $14 million (pound;7.3 million) worth of prizes. "I'd rather represent my country at the science fair than sit my maths and physics exams."

Holly scooped the top prize at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Crest Awards two weeks ago with her research into cosmic rays, and with that win came her place in Albuquerque.

Determined to measure cosmic rays, the sixth year pupil single-handedly built an affordable hodoscope - an instrument that measures the trajectory of charged nuclear particles. The equipment can now be copied for a few pounds by schools, so their pupils can measure the angle of cosmic rays.

She also built a cloud chamber and ran a study in the angular distribution of cosmic rays at sea level.

Judges commented that her exhibit at the science fair would happily sit in any science centre, and that she should be presenting a popular television programme about science.

Holly, who has three unconditional offers to do physics at Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrew's universities, must now consider if it is possible to take her apparatus to the United States for the International Science Fair. If not, she has an impressive display she can take instead.

But Holly wasn't the only Scottish pupil to walk away from the London awards with a trophy. Four out of the 17 awards went to Scottish pupils.

Galen Brown, in fifth year at Stromness Academy in Orkney, won the UK round of the EU Contest for Young Scientists prize, which will take him to the finals in Spain in September. Two years ago, aged 14, Galen recognised the waste of energy caused by using the standby on TVs and other equipment, so he began working on an energy-saving device that switches them off when not in use.

"I have always been into making things, ever since I was six or seven,"

says Galen, who is about to sit six Highers: physics, chemistry, maths, music, English and geography. "This time I wanted to make something that would save all the energy being lost. I began by doing research on the internet and then came up with my idea."

His already patented solution is an extension that is plugged into the mains. By measuring power, it recognises when equipment is not in use for a period of time and switches the power off at the mains. "There is an override button if you want to record something," says Galen, who has begun manufacturing his energy saver to sell and hopes to attract further investment to increase production.

The Crest (creativity in science and technology) awards were set up to encourage development of project-based schemes among 11 to 19-year-olds and are grouped into levels, depending on how much time was spent on the projects. Last year, more than 28,000 students across the UK participated.

Holly found out about them through working as a demonstrator at Edinburgh's annual science festival, while Galen discovered them via the internet.

A group of students from Hutcheson's Grammar in Glasgow was put forward by their school, which is keen to encourage participation among its students and boasts some past winners. This year, Nadia Hyder, Angel Lin, Zenub Qulsoom and Bhanjeek Kaur Greal took first prize in the Crest science project, silver level, and won pound;1,500 for the school.

They spent hours every week growing cultures to measure how much bacteria could pass through different types of toilet paper available in shops and supermarkets. The research was prompted by the revelation that different types of urine were being found on peanuts served in pubs.

They discovered the thicker the toilet roll, the better. "Hospital toilet rolls were the worst. Medicated brands were not much better because it was thickness that affected the efficacy, not chemicals," says Nadia who, like Zenub and Bhanjeek, plans to do medicine at university; Angel will do maths.

"But we concluded that toilet paper isn't enough; people must always use soap and hot water to avoid spreading germs."

The youngest winner at this year's awards was Ruari Jardine from Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire, who was still at junior school when he was inspired by an owl display to study their flight. He won second prize, and pound;750 for his school, in the science projects bronze category, for his report on how they fly so efficiently and use drag to land.

Virginia Currie, a teacher at the junior school, who is responsible for science education, supported him in his application. "Ruari did his project initially for our own science fair that we run at the school every year and in which he was a winner," she says. "He then entered it in Crest. He was only 11 when he completed his project, while the others in his category were much older, some were second or third year at secondary school."



Intel International Science Engineering Fair prize "Cosmic Rain: Investigating Particles from Space"

Holly BatchelorMary Erskine School, Edinburgh

EU Contest for Young Scientists prize

UK Winner: "TV Saver - Solving the Standby Problem"

Galen Brown Stromness Academy, Orkney

Best Crest science projects

Silver category

"Toilet Troubles"

Nadia Hyder, Angel Lin, Zenub Qulsoom and Bhanjeek Kaur Greal Hutcheson's Grammar, Glasgow

Bronze category

"Does Shape Affect Speed?"

Ruari Jardine, Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire

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