Young scientists fairly good at sustainability

Posted on August 24, 2009

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There was a strong sustainability theme at the Otago Science and Technology Fair this weekend.

Here’s some that caught my eye (flickr slideshow).

There’s about an even split of  chemistry, physics and botany but very little zoology.

Alternative energy was by far the strongest theme within what I would characterise as physics/engineering.    Most of these involved small scale models of the wind, solar, tide, wave power systems. The focus for most of these would please Tim the Toolman – “more power” – but it was pleasing to see a couple of projects about reducing energy consumption, including a couple of nice experiments in home insulation.

Sustainabilty entry Otago Science Fair

Sustainabilty entry Otago Science Fair

About ten projects caught my eye as both chemistry and sustainability. Almost all concerned water quality – mostly either rainfall acidity or acidity/nitrate concentrations in local rivers.

Sustainabilty entry Otago Science Fair

There was a really interesting longitudinal project looking at relationships amongst a duck population. It won several awards. Apart from that, there was only one project which could be described a zoology and sustainability – a study of the invertebrates in a river. It seems a shame that none (so far I could see combined the zoo and the chemistry for an integrated study. Even at high school level, this might lead to more of a systemic understanding.

Sustainabilty entry Otago Science Fair

There was more variety in the botanical realm – wildling pines, weed control, fertiliser rates, didymo. As is perhaps appropriate for a high school science fair, most of these were single factor interventions, but it would be nice to see some recognition of complexity.

Sustainabilty entry Otago Science Fair

There were a few descriptive studies: carbon balances of plants (with a focus on shrubs), water wastage from single or multiple plants, and a really ambitious remote sensing of plants (though someone should have pointed the student to the science – NDVI). For me the best project was one which attempted to correlate water chemistry and plants growing near the outfall of a fertilizer factory.

Sustainability entry Otago Science Fair

Only one project (Cycling fitness) addressed the relationship between science and sustainability related behaviour change.

So, all up, a great effort, and wonderful to see so many of our young scientists in the sustainability space.  While I’d like to see less reductionism and more systems thinking it will be a challenge to fit this into the strong experimental method paradigm favoured (expected?/required?) by the science fair structure.

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