Young, gifted and multinational

19th July 2013 at 01:00
Youthful ambitions to save the world or work out how life began can be pursued at a science camp in Finland. Every summer, talented students from all over the globe take part, giving them a taste of international collaboration. Joseph Lee reports

At first sight, it could be any conference taking place at the Hotel Sannas Manor, a few miles outside Porvoo in the lush greenery of southern Finland. On the walls are flipchart pages from an icebreaking exercise on which the teams have jotted down the things they all have in common.

But here, the participants are teenagers and their idea of an icebreaker is to note that "all our birthdays are roots of the following polynomial: x6 - 84 + 2648x4 - 38800x3 + 270864x2 - 841536x + 870912 = 0".

These are no ordinary teenagers.

For one week, this hotel is home to the Millennium Youth Camp, familiarly known as My Camp. Now in its fourth year, it brings together some of the most talented young scientists from all over the world to work on intensive projects tackling big global problems such as climate change, energy, food security and sustainable natural resources.

The initiative was started by Finland's Science Education Centre, known as Luma, and Technology Academy Finland to recreate the kind of international collaboration enjoyed by working scientists for students, mostly aged 15- 19.

It is also aimed at reducing Finland's isolation. For all that its education system is celebrated - one academic says, perhaps only half jokingly, that taxi drivers all over the world mention the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) comparisons when they find out where he is from - the small nation is worried about competing globally.

"We want these youngsters to also be our ambassadors, not just for tomorrow's technology but for Finland," says Juha Yla-Jaaski, the academy's chief executive. "One of the targets for this youth camp is to spread the word that Finland is a country where we adopt new technology fast. It's important that we also attract people from elsewhere, because our talent pool is very limited. If we want to stay ahead, we need to have more people, internationally, come here."

Technology Academy Finland is an umbrella body that brings together business, government and academics to promote science and technology. As well as organising the camp, it awards the biennial Millennium Technology Prize of ?1.2m (pound;1.04m) - with ?1m coming from the Finnish government and ?200,000 from Technology Academy Finland - to inventors of technologies that improve quality of life. Former winner Michael Gratzel, a Swiss scientist who created breakthrough solar cells that are cheaper and more efficient than ever, has joined the camp to inspire the students.

"When we had the opening of the camp, I gave a short speech and I gave them all a long-term goal," Yla-Jaaski says. "In the background, I had the hall of fame of the Millennium Technology Prize. And I just told them, `I want to see your picture up there.'"

The 60 students from 31 countries - from Brazil to Bangladesh, from Ghana to Greece - work under the guidance of expert academics from Finland's universities. The projects are intensive and sophisticated. One group has to research technologies used in water conservation and recycling to design sanitation systems for a space mission to Mars. Asked if they were able to use the International Space Station for inspiration, the students say that its systems were not good enough: they had to do better.

"I would say this is the creme de la creme; it's a very high level," says Professor Peter Lund from Aalto University, which provides experts for the camp. "I would say they are very talented students, but there are two factors that are even more important: they are highly motivated and they are interested to work on multinational teams."

Lund says that international collaboration leads to more effective problem-solving in science, but that the camp also helps Finland to benchmark its education system against the best of the rest of the world. "Being here in the north, at the end of the Earth in a way, if we wait for people (to come), we'd have to wait a long time," he says. "Nobody will bring these `bridges' to Finland if we don't do it."

Lone stars

The camp was first proposed by Professor Maija Aksela, head of Luma and a researcher into science education. "We want to understand the thinking of talented and gifted students, and how to support them and help them do better at networking," she says. "Many of them are quite alone in their own country - because they are so talented, maybe."

When the camp was launched in 2010, the academics supporting the students were taken aback by their abilities, Aksela recalls. The University of Helsinki now automatically offers all the campers a place to study.

"Maybe I wasn't surprised, but our professors and specialists were. They thought at first that they were the people giving the knowledge to these young people, only 15 to 19 years old. But at the camp they realised that these talented students are at the same level as their postgraduate students."

Take Abhi Parikh, from Singapore. The 16-year-old was part of a team researching how to use thermal energy from the body to power a device such as a mobile phone. It meant digging deep into the properties of nanomaterials to find the right combination of low thermal conductivity and high electrical conductivity.

"I felt well equipped because I had all the resources and access to online libraries," he says. "But the actual methodology challenged me because in school, generally, we learn what other scientists have already established. When we started this, we didn't know where it would end."

Abhi had previously taken on a similarly ambitious project for a competition organised by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel prizes. He examined processes in cell organelles, such as mitochondria, to gain an insight into how "non-living compounds give rise to self-replicating living creatures". Just a school student trying to work out how life began, then.

"I'm most interested in astrophysics, the basic questions of the universe," he says. "I want to solve questions of how did we begin? How did the universe begin? How did the Big Bang ever occur in itself? Why not?"

Abhi is the first person from Singapore to attend the camp, but he won't be the last: already more than a dozen younger students have asked him how to apply, he says. "After all, we are an Asian country, and I'm not being racist but it's inherent in our genes to be a bit more inclined towards science and maths." That one may need a bit more research.

For Leevi Lappi, one of four Finnish students at the camp, science and technology is a little less theoretical. When I meet him, the 16-year-old is strapping together plastic bottles with duct tape. When he's finished, he will have a computer-controlled aquatic robot able to gather water samples for analysis.

"I think I'm the guy who always asks the question, how does it work? And I like to dismantle things to see how they work," he says. "And then put them back together." He adds that the biggest challenge of their project - to create a device that can check water quality in inaccessible areas - was the budget of just EUR150: hence the plastic bottles and duct tape.

That and the time limit: they were given just one week to build and program it. "It's our free time now and we're still working on it. But I'm addicted to it."

A revelation

Like many of the students, Leevi has found working with people from all over the world revelatory. It threw up one unexpected scientific mystery, however. "Before the camp, my mother said I would learn a lot about my own culture, the Finnish culture, and I think I have, much more," Leevi says. "Where do our traditions come from? Other campers ask: `Why do you do that?' And I couldn't answer. When we were in the sauna, and we use these birch twigs like a bush and you hit each other with it - why do we do that? I'd never questioned it before.

"But, of course, there has been some scientific research and it does provide vitamins and help your skin get better and so on." Searches for such proof by TES failed to confirm these health benefits.

But the camp also teaches students that sometimes projects do not quite work out. Emma Davies, 18, is the closest to a British representative at the camp: she grew up in Tampere, Finland's third-largest city, with her British father.

Working in the food science and technology group, her challenge was to develop ways of using plant products to replace meat protein in the diet. They analysed protein structures and lipids under the microscope, and studied how different factors affected texture in their effort to create yogurt from soy or fava beans - the latter being chosen because they can grow almost anywhere.

"It was a very interesting process. The only problem was that it was absolutely disgusting. It tasted beany and there was this disgusting odour. Ugh," Emma says. "Everything we made was absolutely disgusting - really healthy but vile."

But the painstaking process of trial and error has her hooked, along with the idealism of the camp. (There is an undeniably hippie streak, with campfire singalongs of Finnish folk songs at the end of the day.)

"I know I won't `save the world', and I know it will take a long time, but I certainly want to be among the people who are trying," she says. "Now I know I want to do something meaningful. I don't want to do something that's already been done, I want to do something important.

"It needn't be anything big, it might just be how a protein could be healthier, but if there's lots of clever people working on small things, then something big could happen."

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