Science comes alive in PortlandBy GAVIN GOMEZ
At the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held in Portland, Oregon, in the United States last month, the young participants left both judges and visitors duly impressed.
Considered the Olympics of science fairs, the Isef has always attracted some of the best students to its grand finals and this year was no different.
The message from the young adults at the fair was clear – there is nothing geeky or nerdy about the sciences, or scientists, for that matter. They're cool!
But while they did party over the one week, the 1,433 students from 38 countries worked equally hard to convince the panel of unforgiving judges of the originality and relevance of their inventions.
Over 1,000 schools were represented at the fair, so imagine what the exhibition floor looked like – with rows after rows of booths and thousands of curious visitors, including busloads of schoolchildren, as well as “talent scouts”, parents, judges and press members.
Visitors left amazed at the level of scientific sophistication and research produced by these promising young minds.
Everything from the latest in stem cell research to robotics and DNA testing were on display to be considered for numerous government, corporate and Isef grand prizes in the 14 contested categories.
Malaysia's delegation to the Isef comprised 11 students – three teams and two individual contestants.
The top team from Malaysia's round of fairs was from SMK Sultan Ismail II, Kemaman, Terengganu. Its project, “Improved Forest Caretaker”, is a device that enables trees to “cry for help” when they are illegally logged or when a forest fire is detected.
Teams also came from SM Sains Muar, Johor Baru, and Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM) Taiping, Perak, which showcased an Angle Indicator (Ator) – an instrument to measure surface flatness and angles for construction – and a project entitled “The Effects of Natural Plant Extracts on Medically Important Bacteria” respectively.
The two individual representatives were Chin Wooi Meng of SMJK Chung Ling, Penang, with his “Digital Video Compression Enhancement” device, and Wan Mohd Hasbullah Wan Abdul Rahman of MRSM Kuala Terengganu, with his design of a clothes dryer.
While it was obvious that parents, schools and the community did play a vital role in supporting the winning students' work, at the end of the day, achieving recognition for their projects hinged on the students themselves.
Intel chief technology officer Pat Gelsinger touched on this in his presentation on the role of technology in research.
The winning formula to being innovative, he says, is “an inquisitive mind, perseverance and a little bit of luck”.
“To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first flight by the Wright brothers, scientists built a replica of the original airplane but it could not fly.
“They learned then that the wind condition when the Wright brothers first took to air was ideal.
“So the Wright brothers did have an element of luck that worked in their favour.”
Above all else, however, is having the right attitude – Gelsinger adds that the world's best scientists and Nobel Prize winners persisted with their research even when failure was more apparent than success. This was affirmed during a question-and-answer session with a panel of Nobel Laureate winners and other award-winning scientists.
As the speakers tell it, they have all had their fair share of failure but it is perseverance and a love for research that have earned them a name in history.
Prof Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1986, says the best thing about doing research is that one gets to “fail over and over again but still do well, unlike sports, politics or business”.
“We get to explore,” he observes.
Students are advised to keep pushing as “you never know when you are on the verge of something historic”.
According to the panellists, scientists are never happy with their findings, always looking for ways to innovate and improve on things. There is also a reminder of what scientific inquiry should be all about.
“You do not, however, do science to win prizes. You must have a high level of curiosity about how the world works. It is your attitude that matters,” says Dr Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1988, currently with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
The passion the students had for their projects was obvious. Most had spent months and some, even years, perfecting their ideas.
But when it came to those who had not put in enough effort, it was obvious – the projects merely skimmed the surface of the subject matter and provided no in-depth analysis of the practicality or innovativeness of the projects.
Long road ahead
Malaysia's entries trailed far behind those from the developed countries in terms of quality and how they reflected a culture of inquiry.
A new design for a clothes dryer, no matter how innovative, just cannot compare with a project on how the people with muscular disability can use computers by having the machines read their brainwaves.
It was evident at the Intel Isef that Malaysia still has a lot of work to do before being able to compete with the world's best.
“We have the facilities, support and technology to be on par with the top countries but yet we are not. Something has to be done.
“The Malaysian Academy of Science is here to help but students are not using the resources available to them,” says Malaysian Institute of Chemistry president and Isef judge Prof Dr Ho Chee Cheong.
The event may have been too competitive for the Malaysians but at least the teams returned knowing what the benchmark was and how much better they have to perform next year.
And although the Malaysian entries were criticised by Prof Ho for their simplicity and lack of originality, one of them – Wooi Meng's project – managed to bag three awards, albeit not major ones.
Wooi Meng believes that Malaysian students must still be confident about participating in such events.
“The standard at the Isef is very high but that should not scare us. We must work hard to be the best,” he says.
If students from this country are to make a more significant impact in future Isefs, perhaps crucial players need to play a greater role. Sarah Yahya from SM Sains Muar's Ator team points to the lack of support for project work in Malaysian schools.
In an education system like Malaysia's, where everything is so examination-focussed, she observes, there isn't always enough backing for students to conduct their own research.
“Some of our own teachers have even asked us why we are doing this as it does not count toward our examination grades,” she says. According to her, this may be part of the reason why some students do not even think about doing research.
“We need to change our mindset,” she adds.