Popcorn codes, superpets, plastic made from milk – it’s the Big Top for boffins

Up to 20,000 attend annual NUI Galway science and technology event

Try drawing a straight line through a mirror, cracking popcorn’s code and learning how to transform milk into plastic. Or taking cognitive tests, comparing the molecular volume of water with alcohol, and mending a few broken hearts – all before second breakfast.

Such was the atom-splitting atmosphere at NUI Galway when thousands of children and their adults converged on campus for the annual Galway Science and Technology Festival Exhibition on Sunday.

Now in its 16th year, the “Big Top for boffins”, as it has been dubbed, matches up students from primary to postgraduate level with academics and professionals attached to institutions and companies in the region.

Satellite-building, genetic breeding of “superpets”, origami’s application to medical diagnostics and the wonders of marine science were among the workshop themes found in schools over the past fortnight, culminating in the one-day exhibition at the university.


Simple experiments

Over in the Aula Maxima building, a team from Galway Neuroscience Centre had set up eight stations, with simple experiments ranging from retina-mapping to sensation perception. “We’re pretty multidisciplinary,” said Dr Una FitzGerald, of the master’s programme in biomedical science, with students from pharmacy, anatomy, physiology, regenerative medicine and psychology all on hand to explain their work.

Among them were PhD students Avril Hand, Corinna Stewart and Naomi du Bois from NUI Galway’s school of psychology, who used optical illusions and “Corsi block-tapping tests” to assess visual memory skills. The more that is known about how the brain acts normally, they explained, the more information is available for therapy, such as working with stroke victims or creating new software.

Medtronic’s mock hospital surgery was the “honeytrap” in Bailey Allen Hall, with queues of would-be surgeons waiting patiently for a bit of fun with white coats and forceps. Among them were Isabelle Griffin (six), from Loughrea, and Roisín Gray (five), from Galway city, chatting and chuckling as they whipped out vital organs from their virtual patient.

Thomas McHugh (11) and fellow pupils from Milltown National School, Co Galway, were set on lassoing passing adults to test their mathematical skills. “Do five sums in a row and you’ll get through to the next round,” said McHugh, who added that his school is an enthusiastic follower of the not-for-profit online Khan Academy. He pointed proudly to a silver trophy, won by the school in the Khan Academy’s MATHletes Challenge online tournament.

Three projects

Treasa Uí Lochlainn’s crew from Carraroe’s Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaraín had three projects on show. Second-year pupils Áine Ní Chualáín (14) and Amanda Tierney (13) had researched the popping consistency of four brands of popcorn, winning the best-presentation award in their school’s own Halloween science fair.

“The reason it pops is because there is a bubble of water in each kernel,” Ní Chualáín said, pointing out that it has to be heated to 347 degrees.

Fellow Carraroe student Aideen NÍ Chnaimhsí, had researched the molecular consistency of different liquids, while Killian Ó Suilleabháin and Diarmuid MacDonncha had made plastic out of milk, thus proving that it could provide a substitute for crude oil.

"It's just superb," former junior science minister and festival founder Noel Treacy proclaimed as he handshook his way around the hall with festival chairman Tom Hyland. The event's organisers calculated that some 20,000 had voted, once again, for citizen science.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times