RDS Primary Science Fair is set to get the right reaction
Thousands of children have been working on a series of quirky experiments for this week's event. Kim Bielenberg reports
The young scientists are getting even younger. Over the coming days, more than 2,700 children will gather in Dublin for the 2015 RDS Primary Science Fair.
This year's event is oversubscribed after a surge of 43pc in the number of applicants hoping to take part. Each of the mini-Einsteins has spent recent months doing experiments.
These might have involved getting out into the countryside or visiting the seashore.
The children at Summercove National School in Co Cork, for example, have been studying the sea creatures that inhabit the rocky shore of Kinsale.
Half of the 120 schools involved this year are first-time entrants. This may be an indication that interest in the subject is growing at primary level. The fair will run at the same time as the BT Young Scientist Exhibition for post-primary students.
Many of the experiments carried out by primary classes are as quirky as ever. They include such in-depth crucial questions as:
l What methods actually work to prevent crying while cutting up onions?
l Why do giraffes have such long necks?
l Why are pipes round?
l What type of cup keeps liquid hot the longest?
Water is a popular topic among exhibitors this year. Children at St John the Baptist National School in Midleton, Co Cork carried out an experiment to find out if they could turn water from the local river into drinking water.
The children at Bracken Educate Together National School should be commended for helping tourists to find out if it is ever worthwhile to wave your arms about when trying to speak a foreign language. They examined how body language helps people to interpret language.
The pupils in sixth class at St Peter's School in Bray, Co Wicklow are typical of the children who have been working diligently in preparation for the fair.
The children set out to design and make a Hawkeye-type system of goal-line technology using one of their Raspberry Pi computers and an iPad. Using electronic sensors they can check if a goal is valid.
Teacher Ciara Brennan says: "We thought this one would be a good one to do because it combines the interest of the pupils in science with IT, and also sport.
"At our school we put a strong emphasis on science. The fair is very enjoyable for the students. It brings all sorts of benefits.
"The children talk about their experience and it instils pride in them that they are representing their school. Previously we have looked at the science of lifeboats and the science of chocolate."
The feedback from teachers seems to indicate that participation in the fair not only improves scientific skills, it is also good for literacy, numeracy and oral language skills.
Unlike the Young Scientist competition, the Primary Science Fair is non-competitive.
Karen Sheeran, RDS Science and Technology Programme Executive, says: "We do not think it would be appropriate to make it competitive at primary level.
"The focus of the fair is on participation as a full class. All the children in the class can be working on a project, and the fair brings it all together.
"It also gives children and teachers a chance to meet up with other schools, and share ideas."
Karen Sheeran believes it is crucial to encourage an interest in science at a young age.
"International studies have demonstrated a direct link between primary school science engagement and later academic science achievement.
"There is a danger that children will lose that spark of interest in science. The age of eight to 10 is really the time to harness that spark.
"We want to ensure that children continue to have a curiosity and we need to support their innate wonder about the world around them.
"The new junior cycle curriculum will focus more on inquiry-based learning and problem-solving. That will really complement the sort of projects at the science fair."
One of the aims of the RDS Primary Science Fair is to develop teacher confidence and skills in teaching STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)using an inquiry-based approach.
Better teaching of STEM in primary education is considered by many experts to be crucial in strengthening Ireland's international science performance.
Ms Sheeran adds: "We want to work with teachers to get away from textbooks and the idea that there is always an expected end result to an experiment.
"Science is about wondering about what is happening around you. It's about the process of investigation. Science doesn't always have a clear answer."
Winners sow seeds of curiosity
Three Cork students who won a global science prize have inspired children in their area to take a strong interest in the subject.
Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community School were overall winners in their age category at the Goggle Science Fair in San Francisco for their work on seed germination and crops. They were also previous winners of the BT Young Scientist prize.
Their achievements seem to have sown the seeds of local curiosity about science. Seven primary schools from west Cork are taking part in this year's RDS Primary Science Fair. "My class was really inspired by them," says teacher Ciara O'Halloran of Scoil Naomh Fionan, Belgooly.
"Because of them, everyone became totally involved in their project. The girls were something real for the children - everyone in the area knows about them."