Fair includes pupil’s unexpected insulator

Steven Sexton. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Steven Sexton. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The science of sleep, whether didymo could be used for insulation and how effectively pupils could cheat using artificial intelligence - all these ideas and more were raised at this year’s Aurora Energy Otago Science and Technology fair.

University of Otago senior lecturer in science education Dr Steven Sexton, who is also the awards convener, said the winners showed the sort of science acumen that would impress his postgraduate students.

"We had quite a few entries that looked at sustainability, and that’s where Lachlan Mansan’s (year 7, Mt Aspiring College) ‘Snot vs Glass’ presentation came in," Dr Sexton said.

"The student picked a title that would be catchy, but what it was really about was whether didymo, when dried, could be used as an insulation material.

"He found out that dried didymo was a better insulator than Pink Batts.

"Now, there are questions about whether we should have didymo ... but the Centre for Sustainability said it was nothing that it could have expected.

"It was totally out of their wheelhouse."

Dr Sexton said the overall winner, "Sleep and the wellbeing of adolescence: A national survey" by St Hilda’s Collegiate year 11 pupil Megha Senthilkumar, emailed questions to students from more than 200 schools about sleeping habits.

The integrity of the survey questions, the fact they were anonymous and how they were collated, was impressive and empathetic, he said. 

"The difficulty was that some of the students disclosed some fairly problematic issues with their mental health," Dr Sexton said.

"A lot of high school students are under stress, and sleep and wellbeing is being impacted."

Dr Sexton said there were quite a few projects which looked at AI software such as ChatGPT and whether it was having an effect on pupils’ work.

"Using AI is often a time-pressure thing that leads to bad decisions.

"We get that at the university too," he said.

The entrants came from schools throughout the Otago region, and ranged from year 7 to 13.

Premier award winners

Aurora Energy best in fair award: Megha Senthilkumar (St Hilda’s Collegiate)

New Zealand Oil & Gas most promising year 9-13 scientist award: Adam Ludgate (John McGlashan College)

Niwa award: Hannah Fleming (Otago Girls’ High School)

Otago Institute for Arts and Science general excellence award: Jenny Petegem Thach (Taieri College)

Otago Institute for Arts and Science general excellence award for young scientist: Cameron Bond (Balmacewen Intermediate)

Otago Institute for Arts and Science matuaranga Maori award: Charlie Burgess (Mount Aspiring College), Archie McKinlay (Dunedin North Intermediate), Lucy Ireland (Dunedin North Intermediate), Oscar Wilkinson (Dunedin North Intermediate)

Premier Otago Science Teacher Association general excellence award: Vinicius Santos (Arrowtown School)

Premier University of Otago Centre for Sustainability award: Lachlan Mansan (Mount Aspiring College)