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National Youth Science Forum

7/02/2013

Sam Cree was one of two students selected last year to attend the National Youth Science Forum in Canberra over the holidays.   One of the expectations of participation in the program is that they report back to the school after they attend the program. Here is Sam's report.

I found National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) to be a great opportunity to learn some amazing things about science in Australia, as well as to meet like-minded peers from around the country.

I first heard about NYSF when it was advertised in the school notices during April 2012. Interested by this opportunity, I contacted several local Rotary clubs to find one which would nominate me. The first round of selection at the Mount Gravatt Rotary Club included a written application and an interview. After this, there was a district-wide secondary selection process at Toowoomba, including more interviews, impromptu speeches, and some team-building activities. I was very pleased to hear back from Mr Paul Merry in August that I had been accepted to go to NYSF Session A in Canberra.

Even with significant subsidy from NYSF sponsors, I was still required to raise $2,400 to fund the trip. Fortunately, I found several very generous sponsors over the next few months who greatly assisted me with the cost of attending the Forum. I would like to thank Mount Gravatt Rotary, the Mansfield State High School P&C, Senators Claire Moore, Sue Boyce, Jan McLucas and Brett Mason for their much appreciated assistance.

On the evening of the 6th of January, I boarded the ‘North Coach’ with about 30 other students from the Queensland area. After a 22 hour bus ride, we arrived at the Australian National University in Canberra and met up with the rest of the 144 students from around Australia. Additionally, there were 10 international students from Germany, New Zealand and Canada. One of the most amazing things about the forum was the chance to meet so many like-minded students and share our passion for science with one another.

Over the next two weeks, we were immersed in the scientific community in Canberra, through lab visits, seminars, debates, industry presentations and guest speakers. After a very jam-packed and exciting two weeks, we said goodbye to all the friends we’d made and headed back home on the 19th of January.

It was great to learn so much about science and see it being put into action in the real world. When we went out to the six lab visits, we were split into interest groups based on selections we’d made in the application process. I was put in the ‘Galileo’ group, which had a focus on maths and physics.

Our first lab visit took us to an optics lab at ANU, where we learnt about some of the stranger properties of light. We were also shown how an LCD screen TV works, and we had a tour through some optical research laboratories. This was great to get a more realistic picture in our heads about the sort of environment in which experimental researchers work.

We also went to the ANU Physics department, where we were allowed to conduct some experiments of our own, where we practised applying scientific thought processes. With two peers, I used some computer software to investigate gamma radiation, and later transmitted music from one side of a park to another using flashing lights. This was a great chance to participate in the action and apply the scientific method first-hand.

Our next lab visit took us to the Australian Institute of Sport, where we were shown the biomechanics lab. Here we learnt about the ways which physics was applied to find the most efficient techniques for certain sports, such as hurdles or cricket. It was exciting to see that we could combine our interests in science with those in seemingly unrelated areas, like sport.

For our fourth lab visit, we were taken to the ‘Coldest Place’. Here they cool particles to within a few billionths of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero, making it ostensibly the coldest place in the universe. Hearing Professor John Close explain some complicated theories in ways which we could understand was really intriguing and helped us grasp the significance and intricacy of some of the research being done. It was also good to hear about the kinds of technology that could be developed from this laboratory and applied in industry.

Next, we went to the ANU Supercomputer facility. Here, we saw and learnt about the setup for the most powerful computer in Australia. We also learnt about the use of 3D printers to replicate fossils and organisms and other powerful methods of visualising data. It was great to see the kinds of tools available to Australian scientists to help with processing and interpreting their data.

Our final lab visit took us to the Mt Stromlo observatory, where we were introduced to the ANU astrophysics research team. We learnt about galaxy collisions, dark matter and dark energy, and we all left feeling thoroughly overwhelmed and amazed at the physics of the universe. We also learnt that it can be very hard to predict what areas of science will provide the next major breakthrough, so we must treat all areas of science as equal.

Part of this equality between disciplines was shown in that many researchers rely on the collaborations of their fellow scientists in separate disciplines. We heard from one guest speaker, for example, that for him to account for a particular factor or interpret certain data in his entomology research, he sometimes needed experience and knowledge from seemingly distant disciplines, such as organic chemistry, statistical mathematics, or even nutritional science.

Throughout the program, one recurring message was that science needs to be used to create a sustainable future. For example, another of our guest speakers spoke to us about her research in recycling technology, and explained how she was able to find practical uses for materials which would otherwise be thrown away into landfill. It was great to hear about practical solutions that science is finding for some serious problems affecting the world today.

Sustainability was also a key issue raised in the debates and communication seminars which we all thoroughly enjoyed. These were a great chance to think about how we get our discoveries across to a non-scientific audience, and to learn some skills which could be used in these situations.

As well as hearing several seminars and having a debate on the importance of communication in science, we were also able to put this into action by developing our communication skills in three ways.

Firstly, we had a three-minute impromptu speech on a topic given to us randomly (mine was “What to do in the event of a transformer attack”). It was very challenging, but very rewarding, to attempt to structure our ideas into a speech while on our feet.

Secondly, we had the opportunity to share a five-minute prepared speech on an area of science which we were passionate about. This gave us the opportunity to focus on structuring a planned speech and improving our speaking etiquette, as well as learn about some of the interests of our fellow students. I spoke about the search for the Grand Unified Theory in physics, and was glad to receive constructive criticism at the end.

The final opportunity we were given to put scientific communication into practise was a mock job interview. Before coming to NYSF, we had submitted a job application for a position which we could see ourselves working in in 8 year’s time. At an interview, scientific experts constructed an interview similar to what we would expect in real life and gave us a chance to practise our interviewing skills. Being put out of our comfort zones like this made the interviews one of the most challenging parts of the Forum.

As well as these three, there were many debates (planned and unplanned) which helped us in our communication skills. Overall, I think that understanding the importance of communication in science and developing the necessary skills was one of the most valuable aspects of NYSF.

Finally, there was also the social aspect of NYSF. As I mentioned earlier, NYSF was a rare opportunity to meet fellow students from around the country (and the world) who share a passion for science and logical thinking. I made some close friends and had a lot of fun with them throughout the social events, such as the bush dance, the science disco, and the concert night.

I am very grateful for this wonderful opportunity, and would like to acknowledge all the hard work that so many people have done to make my trip to NYSF possible. Firstly, I’d like to thank my school for advertising the opportunity to apply for NYSF. Also thanks to Mrs Vander Spoel for helping me with my application and giving me valuable information about NYSF, and Mrs Holly and Mrs Farr for all their work in contacting Rotary clubs, applying for fundraising, and being there to answer any questions that I had. Also thanks to Mrs Hardie for contacting the P&C and to Ms Andrews for proof-reading my application. Of course, I would not have been able to go had it not been for the Rotary Club of Mount Gravatt. They were very helpful and friendly in managing and answering questions about the nomination process, as well as their incredibly generous financial assistance. I’d also like to thank all of the sponsors that I mentioned earlier again for their assistance. Thanks also to Paul Merry and the Rotary Club of Toowoomba South for their time and effort spent organising the District Interviews and making them enjoyable and relaxed. Finally, I’d like to thank all those who worked for the NYSF, in the office, as a ‘staffie’ or as a member of the National Science Summer School committee. They all did a great job of making the organisation process run smoothly, as well as offering approachable and relatable advice.

I am truly grateful to all of these people for allowing me and so many others to have such a wonderful and memorable experience at NYSF. I will value the friends that I have made, the experiences I have had and the skills I have developed from NYSF for many years to come.