The chipmaker believes science and engineering fairs encourage critical thinking and innovation among our students.
By ZAM KARIM email@example.com
SECONDARY school science and engineering fairs do not produce nerds and geeks. Instead, participation in such activities helps instil confidence and competence among the students. And who knows, these fairs could be a stepping stone to something greater in their future.
Take this a step further and imagine the participants going international with their projects, to compete against their peers around the globe, as well as getting judged by the best in the world — top scientists and industry players.
Such success would do immeasurable good for the confidence of the students and certainly encourage them further in all of their activities.
That’s the reasoning behind chipmaker Intel Corp’s organising of the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) 2012, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from May 13-18.
ISEF is the world’s largest inter-national pre-college science competition, and provides an opportunity for more 1,500 students from around the globe to share ideas, showcase cutting-edge science projects, and compete for international recognition.
The prizes amount to more than US$4mil (RM12mil) in awards and scholarships.
In Malaysia, there are two ISEF-affiliated fairs each year — the Ministry of Education’s National Competition for Innovation in Science and Engineering, and the Mara Junior Science College’s (MRSM) National Scientist Talent Competition.
Five science projects were selected from the more than 600 submissions to these fairs, and the student brains behind these would represent the country at ISEF 2012.
These involved an agro-based water-treatment system for rural communities; introducing luciferase in grass to prolong photosynthesis, resulting in less global warming; the Kenaf plant as a green source of energy; the cassava stem core as a heat insulator, and an egg separator machine.
Benjamin Wong Ngie Xiong, 17, from SMK Batu Lintang in Kuching, bagged the third prize in the Environmental Sciences category of the international event for his agro-based water treatment system. He also came home with US$1,000 (RM3,000) in prize money.
His science project looked at the possibility of using natural coagulants to precipitate out colloidal particles, which causes turbidity in untreated water in rural areas.
After almost a year of research, he settled on jackfruit seeds, ridge gourd and breadnut seeds because these plant materials are readily available locally and are cheap, which makes the end product economically viable if marketed commercially.
The other Malaysian science projects did not fare so well at ISEF 2012. But the students should not be discouraged, said the organiser. The students may not have won prizes, but they have gained much from the experience.
“ISEF is a great platform for Malaysian students to showcase their talents in innovation to their peers, as well as compete on a global stage,” said Prakash Mallya, country manager for Intel Malaysia.
Mallya saw plenty of creativity and critical-thinking skills evident among the participants at the competition, and that their concern for the preservation of the environment showed in several of the projects.
He was also blown away by the level of confidence that the students had shown in the international arena.
“I wasn’t half as confident at that age,” he said with a laugh. According to him, participating in the science fair also provides the students with a unique opportunity to hone their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, which are vital for careers in the 21st century.
“Using these skills, our students will be able to go beyond the classroom, and on to solving real world problems,” he said.
Past ISEF participants Dr Salma Yasmin, 27, and Haleeda Hilmi, 18, couldn’t agree more.
A finalist in 2001, Dr Salma said, there are a lot of changes in ISEF 2012. “But one thing’s for sure, it is still a competitive world and, what I learned and experienced by participating still helps me plan ahead and improve myself,” she said.
She works as a medical trainee lecturer in family medicine at Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Faculty of Medicine.
During ISEF 2001, she and two team members demonstrated a thermostat-equipped autospeed fan — it was a regular table fan with a sensor that adjusted the speed of the spinning blades depending on the temperature of its surroundings.
She didn’t win. But her greatest reward was getting to interact with Nobel Prize laureates and exchange ideas at the event.
“At that time, I was a rather shy person. But being at ISEF, I felt like a different person and the experience helped me become more confident,” she said.
Haleeda, who had participated in last year’s ISEF final, said the experience helped sharpen her ability to think outside the box. Her project was a water-pollution detector using fish enzymes.
“Everything starts with a small idea that gets elevated,” she said. “And interacting with the other participants from all over the world opens your mind.”
Haleeda is taking a foundation course in science and has applied to Mara to study medicine in Ireland. Like them, Wong agrees that he has learned a lot from participating on an International level.
“I’ve made new friends, learned about other cultures and languages, and at the same time had fun,” he said during a videoconferencing interview arranged by Intel Malaysia.
And the ideas don’t end when the science fair or competition finishes. A good idea can still be turned into reality as long as you have the willpower to do something about it, according to ISEF participants. Hafiz Musa, 28, is a good example.
He continues to further develop and enhance his Bahasa Malaysia-to-English translation software, called MyKamus — the project that won third prize at ISEF 2000 in Detroit, and took third place at the International Computer Project Olympiad in Turkmenistan in 2001.
The eldest of five siblings, he was furthering his studies in software engineering at the Multimedia University in Cyberjaya at the time. “I continued to develop MyKamus bit by bit during my free time and during semester breaks,” he said.
In 2008, the product was finally ready for commercialisation. With the support of his family, he set up Citra Computing Network Sdn Bhd (www.mykamus.com) the following year, to market MyKamus.
His father and sisters do the marketing while he is in charge of the technical side of the business.
Now in version 7, the software translates English to Bahasa Malaysia and vice versa. Simply click on any word you see on a website or document to get the translation. It also translates whole paragraphs.
Its other features include translating Bahasa Malaysia to Jawi, and an audio function to read out loud any word or sentence.
So far, 10,000 copies of MyKamus has been sold.
Not resting on his laurels, Hafiz is working on a new version that will support the upcoming Micosoft Windows 8 operating system.
Hafiz wishes he could work faster to enhance his product but is facing several hurdles. These include a lack of R&D funding and not being able to hire other programmers to help due to cost constraints.
Intel believes science and engineering fairs are an effective platform to encourage secondary school students to increase their critical thinking and innovation skills.
If we provide the right (nurturing) environment, the number of projects will go up, as well as the quality, Intel Malaysia’s Mallya said.
“We want to give every child the opportunity to participate; who knows, one or more of them may change the country or the world for the better,” he said.
Intel Malaysia would like to see many more student projects coming from Malaysia at ISEF, and many more Malaysian kids winning the awards. “That would also be a great representation of the quality of education in the country,” said Mallya.
However, he said, the fairs are just one component for success. More still needs to be done to further boost the education system in the country.
Among these are pushing curriculum standards that ensure the students learn the critical skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a global economy; providing teachers with the right tools and training to support a student-centric learning environment; and accelerating the education transformation.
“It is a systemic approach that supports best practices for achieving reform and is based on educational research,” he said.
Towards this end, Mallya said, Intel Malaysia will continue to be a key partner and collaborator with the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Higher Education in their various initiatives and programmes in the areas of policy for education and teachers’ professional development, and others.