Science Week: Experiment to dye for and humming for health

Circus performance reveals laws of physics while SciFest gets its first female winner

James Soper - science teacher, ex-circus performer and juggler with a Guinness World Record - is performing exciting and educational shows during Science Week. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

A primary school teacher put the integrity of her spotless lemon blouse in the hands of physics on Monday, as she precariously swung around a jug full of red food colouring in front of her grinning students.

With the jug resting on a canteen tray, nothing but gravity holding it in place, the 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds scooted forward to the edges of their seats, waiting for a spontaneous dye-job. Their disappointed and astonished faces were at odds with their teacher’s relief, however, when the immutable laws of the universe won out.

Guinness World Record holding juggler and science presenter James Soper was the mastermind behind the spectacle. For the 10th year, Soper brought his circus skills and teaching experience back to Dublin as part of Ireland’s 21st annual Science Week.

Soper spent the day at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s public library, explaining Newton’s three laws of motion using a skateboard, making balloon animals to demonstrate physical forces, spinning a ball with a drill to show the laws of balance and friction, and to reveal the centre of mass by juggling on top of a giant unicycle

Performance

“If I do it, it’s a trick,” he told his audience. “But if you do it, it’s science.”

The performer-come-teacher has been juggling since he was 11. After years of bringing football and liquid nitrogen into his science classroom, a friend suggested that juggling might also make a great teaching tool.

“It was like a little light bulb went off. When you do something yourself you don’t think it’s anything special,” says Soper. “Juggling was just everything – it was my misspent youth. And then it just became more and more educational.”

The circus is the perfect vehicle for education because children are engrossed by its spectacle and its execution fundamentally relies on science. Children think they have just seen a circus show, he says, but they have learned about gravity and magnetism, pushes, pulls and twists, pairs of forces, balanced and unbalanced forces, and gyroscopic stability – 13 years of curriculum physics in 45 minutes.

“My aim is to try and get the kids to make two noises,” Soper says. “I want them to go ‘wow’ because I know I’ve got their attention, and I want them to go ‘ahh’ because that means they’ve got the science behind it.”

Female champion

On Friday, Irish secondary students showed off their own scientific creativity, displaying science projects from stealth aircraft to sound-absorbing paint as part of SciFest. Throughout the year, 3,500 projects were whittled down to just one winner. This is the first year Ireland’s largest science competition for secondary students has had a female champion, buoying her optimism about women in science and on the world stage.

“Especially since Trump’s election and Hillary’s loss, I feel now we can push feminism again,” winner Caolann Brady says with a laugh.

The sixth year student was one of 35 girls who dominated the SciFest national final, making up two thirds of this year’s finalists. The unprecedented female representation is a reflection of the popularity of science, technology engineering and maths with girls in school and more broadly, said competition founder Sheila Porter.

“It’s been a male-dominated area traditionally, but now it’s really changed,” adds fellow finalist Heather Murphy (16). “And in the education system, that’s really where it all starts. There’s no reason to stop anyone’s limits, whether they’re a boy or a girl.”

Brady, who attends St Wolstan’s Community School, Celbridge, developed a project that could change the way asthma is treated in Ireland. She wanted to prove that ventilation of the paranasal sinuses increases when a person hums, improving various breathing difficulties. Testing 175 people, she found humming at a precise pitch for 45 seconds improved lung function by an average of 10 per cent.

“I am an asthmatic myself, and I wanted to see if I could treat my symptoms without reliance on inhalers and medications,” she says.

Official diagnosis

The competition debuted another world-first; 16-year-old Cora Twomey is the first person to officially diagnose Strongyloides Ransomi, a harmful parasite, in Irish pig farms. The Davis College student took on the research after hearing that her father had struggled to diagnose parasites in his pigs 16 years ago.

“It can cause anaemia, coughing, bloody diarrhoea, worst cases it can kill them,” Twomey says. “So it’s very serious, coming from a pig farmer’s side of things, if your pigs are just dropping dead.”

The budding biologist said she is already working with two companies to come up with a worldwide solution to the parasite, but her discovery will have to wait until after she sits her Leaving Cert.

Brady will go on to represent Ireland at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles early next year, but for now people of all ages can discover the science behind everything from high-performance sport to the chemical composition of gin. Co-ordinated by Science Foundation Ireland, the annual celebration of science is taking place nationwide this week, with events and festivals in cities including Galway, Limerick, Kerry and Cork.

You can find more details about what else is happening in Dublin and around the country as part of Science Week at scienceweek.ie.