Already we are well into 2015 and we celebrate a new year's activities. Several times a year, I like to celebrate the awards and achievements of our Australian scientists. On none other than Australia Day!
I do this for two reasons: the first is because scientists are not applauded in our society as much as pop musicians, film stars and sports people (although the general public respects them more and thinks their work more important); and the second is to show that, for our population size and limited resources, Australian scientists are doing "not too badly".
Since I spend much of my time mentoring young people, this International Year of Light is a good way to start celebrating, by talking about the brightness of our youth. There are many stories in the Bible where young people have been called upon by God to prepare for a magnificent future; the best known are David, Ruth, Jesus Himself, but there are many others. A shining example (to over-use the "light" metaphor) is Samuel:
1 Samuel 3 verses 9-10 "Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel "Go and lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said "Speak, for your servant is listening.""
Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SiMS)
The Federally funded SiMS program is administered by CSIRO-Education, and has matched scientists with 2200 (23%) of Australian school at some point since its inception in 2007. At present, there are 1615 active partnerships and the program was awarded the CSIRO Medal for Support Excellence in October, for outstanding services to support the delivery of science.
The scientists are all volunteers. The funding goes to pay CSIRO officers in each State who review the scientists' applications, arrange for legal clearance for "working with children", match up the needs of the school with the skills and available time of the scientists, maintain contact via newsletters and occasional workshops and generally provide support and iron out any problems.
The rest is up to the individual partners. Different scientists may undertake such activities as giving an occasional talk on a topic the teacher thinks is relevant, mentoring students doing individual or group projects (both in primary and secondary schools), taking a weekly "science lesson" on a topic of the teacher's choosing, giving occasional demonstrations, or co-ordinating links to University or industry laboratories and real-life projects. But this is not a complete list: the modus operandi are decided entirely by discussions between individual scientists and the teachers at their partner school, depending on needs.
From talking to scientists I know personally, I hear that children are often stimulated to work out ideas or research "facts" and express their own opinions for class discussion, rather than just sitting and listening. The teachers benefit, too. They not only make genuine partnerships that help foster the children's interest, but they gain more confidence in how to explain science phenomena to young children.
Science and Engineering Awards
Whether they have a scientist in their school or not, many school students enter their science projects in a variety of competitions. One of the best-known is the BHP-Billiton Science and Engineering Award, which is co-sponsored by CSIRO and the Australian Science Teachers Association. The children's' projects are judged by the Science Teachers Associations in each individual state and awards are presented there; then the very best of these go forward to the national competition, with cash prizes up to $4000 for the best secondary school entry. The primary students with the best 8 projects get $250 each, and there are encouragement prizes for up to 90 other primary school kids. There is also a science teacher's award.
The 2014 winners (for projects done during 2013) covered studies on the effects of texting on driving, reclaiming phosphate from waste water, management of stroke patients using technology, and several other innovative inventions or projects.
Sleek Geek Awards for School Students
The self-named Sleek Geeks are the exemplary science communicators Dr Karl and Adam Spencer. The prizes they sponsor are for 3-minute videos that explain some aspect of science, with separate awards for Primary Schools and Secondary School students. The website explains: "The University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka School Prizes are part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, Australia's most comprehensive science awards."
The short-listed videos for 2014 highlight a range of topics; including sound, colour, black holes, properties of living things, scientific language, phantom limbs, termites and more. They all show how thoughtful and innovative young people can be, both in their understanding of science concepts and in their ability to put together a short but entertaining video. The "highly commended" entries are well worth watching.
The Science and Maths Olympiads: we are "Tops".
Every year, our elite high school teams of Science and Maths Olympians bring home medals; this year again there was a swathe of bronze and silver and an honourable mention in physics, chemistry and biology - and – wait for it – two silver and two gold (both within the top 5; one with a perfect score) in maths, the best result since 1999. There was also a first place in informatics.
I still wonder why we don't see reporters and TV cameras meeting these Olympians' planes when they return from the competition with their medals. After all, three students were judged in the top 5 in the whole world; one got a PERFECT SCORE!
Team echiDNA Won a Biomedical Competition at Harvard: they came FIRST.
But the news gets even better. The epitome for youth awards for 2014 was Team echiDNA, consisting of seven students from the University of New South Wales, who won the international BIOMOD competition at Harvard University for biologically-inspired engineering.
The official website states: "Grand prize winner "Team echiDNA" from Australia's Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute was recognised for presenting its cooperative molecular biosensor, which was inspired by swarming behaviour seen throughout Nature in flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarms of insects, and multicellular mechanisms in the human body."
They beat 30 teams from 12 other countries. Why didn't we see or hear about it in the media? Perhaps they deserved a ticker-tape parade? I repeat: THEY WON!!!
Bright and hopeful for the future
All the young participants in these programs and competitions (not just the winners) are little twinkling lights, which will burn brighter over the years if they continue getting this type of support. It gives us hope for the future of science! Perhaps 2015 Australia Day, and the Year of Light, will bring the start of a fresh enlightenment.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed athttp://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html