It’s a grey Sunday afternoon and the quad is fairly quiet, but the Elliot lecture wing is buzzing. UVic is hosting the 57th annual Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair for the second time and the public viewing portion has just begun. The main areas of the building are packed with 135 poster boards and 170 young scientists and engineers— students from grades four to 12 in local schools. Parents snap pictures, university student volunteers direct those who’ve come for the public viewing, while the young scientists mingle, filling the room with excited chatter. Judges weave through the crowds, ducking past iPhone camera photo-ops, trying to make sure they see every project.
“All of [the projects] were amazing,” says UVic general biology student, Lucas Agagnier, who volunteered at the fair. “All these kids work really hard on their stuff.”
Agagnier thinks that the event is a good opportunity for young people to put their inquisitive minds to use. “They had very clear ideas about their outcomes,” he says. “It was cool to see children [and teenagers] really exercising the scientific method. They’re just question machines. That’s super cool to me because that’s all science is.”
Dr. Rossi Marx, a biology professor at UVic, is a member of SAYS — the Society for the Advancement of Young Scientists, who organizes the event. SAYS picks the top projects in grades seven to 12 that will move on to the nationals. The organization also pays to fly the students and two delegates to the national science fair, says Dr. Marx. This year the nationals are in Ottawa.
“I honestly don’t really care about the competition part,” he says.
SAYS plays a big role in planning the science fair, spending hours organizing and fundraising to make the event run smoothly. As the chair, Marx deals with registrations, teachers’ questions, and floor plans.The president of SAYS also has a lot of responsibilities. When the old president decided to step down, Andrea Chang put up her hand and said “I’m totally down to do it.”
Chang is a second year education student at UVic and the first female president of the society. It’s a big job, she says, with plenty of talking, emailing, and organizing. For Chang, the incentive to have the fair run smoothly is a personal one.
“It’s a lot of making sure everyone is having the [amazing] time that I had,” she says. Chang entered the science fair five times, and went to the nationals four times.
Even the youngest scientists are as passionate about the fair as Chang is. Timothy Fehr is in grade five at Pacific Christian School.
“My project is [called] Rocket Science and my big question is ‘which explosion source makes the bottle rocket go farthest?’,” says Fehr, who clarifies, “by explosion source, I mean rocket fuel.”
The fact that it’s science is what made this experiment fun, says Fehr, who wants to be an inventor and chemist when he grows up. Winning isn’t even on his mind. “I honestly don’t really care about the competition part,” he says.
Jonathan Gower, another young participant, did his project in French. (Some of the students are in French immersion and switch back and forth between Canada’s official languages with ease.)
“For my science fair, I decided to do ‘how much does yeast affect the rising of bread?’” says Gower, a grade six student at Central Middle School. “I wanted to do it and then my friend didn’t want to and he said it wouldn’t work, and that just made me really want to do it.”
Gower’s hypothesis was that yeast doesn’t affect how much bread rises, “which is incorrect, now that I know what yeast is,” he says. “It still tells me something and I still learned things.” Gower ate most of his experiment after he’d done his measurements — the best bread was the one with no yeast at all, in his opinion.
His advice to other students who want to do the science fair? “They should try to do something they love,” Gower, who wants to be a veterinarian or zoologist, says. “I love hamsters, so next science fair I’m going to do something about hamsters. It just inspires you.”
“I wanted to do [my experiment] and then my friend didn’t want to and he said it wouldn’t work, and that just made me really want to do it.”
The older students are set up downstairs. As soon as you get down to the lower level, you’re met with a slightly calmer din. These students are excited, but most are more serious.
Madeleine Kelly, a seventh grader from St. Margaret’s School, is sitting on a folding chair near her poster board, and stands out from the crowd in the bright red blazer of her school uniform. This is Kelly’s second year at the science fair. Her project, Forever Straws, involves using 10 different chemicals to try to degrade plastic straws.
“Straws are affecting our world,” she says. “They’re one of the top 10 marine debris and they’re hurting ocean creatures a lot. They’re going to last for a lot longer than we know.” She thought that bleach would be the best chemical for degrading the straws, “because it has chlorine in it and straws are made of polypropylene and its weakness is chlorine,” says Kelly.
But it turned out that water did the best job in her experiment.
Sometimes you end up with more failures than successes in science, says Chang, but for her, failure makes her work harder and want to do all she can to improve her experiments.
While there are a lot of incorrect hypotheses in science, explains SAYS president Chang, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report your findings or take your work to the science fair.
In fact, Chang’s favourite project (one that won her a gold medal at the Canada-wide competition) was a unique project, she says, because it failed.
“My partner and I tried to do a project on reading and we tried to improve reading. Essentially all of our experiments failed and we talked about why it failed,” says Chang. The judges appreciated the fact that the young scientists understood why their experiments failed and what that meant.
To those with failed experiments, Chang says, “you should be at a science fair because nothing is perfect and telling people what you struggled with, but also improved [on] because of those struggles, is why your project is amazing.” Sometimes you end up with more failures than successes in science, says Chang, but for her, failure makes her work harder and want to do all she can to improve her experiments.
“I think STEM in general is important because allowing kids to have an inquiry-based opportunity gives them the time to have something fun to do and something that they’re passionate about to talk about with other people who are experienced in their field.” The science fair judges try to push the participants further in their thinking, says Chang. They’ll ask questions until the student doesn’t have an answer.
“That’s our goal,” says Chang, “we want to tell them these answers that they don’t know.” This helps students push their work further and improve on their work for next year. Students can enter with new work, or improved work, says Chang.
“It’s up to them what they want to do here.”