The Young Scientists of Terenure
By Seán Duke
Co-Founder of Science Spin, Ireland’s only popular science magazine, and regular science contributor to The Sunday Times. Ireland’s scientific future is very bright indeed judging by the passion and knowledge for the subject shown by St Joseph’s BNS students and teachers on their annual ‘science day’.
In Bean Uí Loinsigh’s junior infants class, the little ones – a few short months after their first day in school – were learning about air, and the importance of light. A simple experiment using coloured tissue paper floating up above a classroom radiator, got the message across that air rises when heated, and falls, when it is cooled – the latter explaining why it rains. The boys listened intently as their teacher explained more.
The Sun heats the world, said Bean Uí Loinsigh, the warm air rises, goes into warm fluffy clouds, she continued, goes into a cold mountain, when it cools and falls again, usually as rain. It was and effective connection of science to the ‘real world’ that we all live in.
The teacher moved on to another subject – light. Why is light important? Bean Uí Loinsigh turned the lights down low and pointed to a number of x-rays of actual people on the wall. These had been given by a doctor, who had a child at the school, she said. Light was needed to make the x-rays, he explained, and x-rays were important because doctors could learn a lot by using them to look at various parts of the body when things were going wrong.
One x-ray, showed the twisted fingers of an old lady with arthritis, which, Bean Uí Loinsigh said might afflict some of the boy’s grandparents. There were other x-rays of the back, knees, hip and pelvis, and some showed how doctors use screws and metal – like a carptener – to do repairs. There was also an x-ray of St Joseph’s boy, Luke, that had suffered a fracture to his wrist. The fact that some of the little ones knew the older boy added to their obvious interest – and it’s a great way to get little ones interested in science.
Colours too, were on the learning agenda – specifically how to make certain colours. What makes Pink asked Bean Uí Loinsigh? White and red came back the answer. Brown? Blue and Red. Whatever the question, it seemed the little ones had the right answer ready.
Meanwhile, over in Miss O’Gorman’s Junior Infant class, the boys were learning about what floats, and what doesn’t float. Straw? Yes, that might float. Anything else? “An elephant wouldn’t float Miss, it will definitely sink because it’s way too fat,” said one of the boys matter of factly.What about plastic, Miss O’Gorman prodded? Or wood? She drew the boys’ attention to the container of water and various materials placed on the desk in front of them. The class was going to vote, said Miss O’Gorman, on whether things would float or sink. The voting proved chaotic, passionate and noisy – and strong opinions were aired.
It was time to move to another classroom, and this time, the principle of sound was the order of the day. Denzel, a junior infant, was brought up to the top of the classroom, and asked to shake a contatiner. What was the sound like, the class was asked? Loud or quiet? What was inside the container? All kinds of creative, weird and wonderful answers came flying in, but the crucial clue came when the teacher said the material inside was “the wet stuff that goes with chicken curry”. Ah, that’s easy said a few boys knowingly: it’s rice.
A class of senior infants were learning about fingerprints. The teacher asked whether identical twins had the same fingerprints. That’s a question that many adults might find tricky, never mind 5 and 6 year olds Most of the class agreed they were the same, but one clever little fella, didn’t buy it and said – quite correctly – that identical twins had different fingerprints. There’s a boy that was confident enough to stand out from the crowd.
Back again to the junior infants, where a class was learning about magnets. What is a magnet? What kind of material would be magnetic? If something is not a magnet, it is called non-magnetic. The teacher followed up with some simple demonstrations. [I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn about magnets until some time in secondary school].
One boy was asked to pick out something – a book and a horseshoe were two examples chosen – and the class would vote on whether that item was magnetic or not. The voting was again noisy, but definitive, and more often than not, most of the boys got it right. The magnetic, unflappable, Miss Byrne, waited for the cacophony to die down and continued. “We can’t continue until the noise stops,” she said, and then waited for quiet to break out.
In the ‘big hall’ the older boys had their experiments on display. The noise was deafening on entry to the hall, with all manner of testing, banging, and loud explaining going on. One group was making making carbon dioxide (the greenhouse gas), while another showed how the laws of motion makes it vital to wear a seat belt. In another part of the hall, a group were showing that a fire would die when it was starved of oxygen – the principle behind a fire blanket – while others used tin cans and string to show how sound travels in waves.
It was tremendous to see so many young boys clearly having fun with science, and getting engaged with the subject. One beaming young boy, when asked was he enjoying himself said: “This is my favourite school day of the year.” A future scientist in the making?
The St Joseph’s boys have a local role model should they aspire to do great science. Dublin 6 was home to Ireland’s only Nobel Laureate, Professor Ernest Walton, of Trinity College, who lived for years just down the road from St Joseph’s in St Kevin’s Park Dartry. He won the Nobel Prize for designing the experiment that famously ‘split the atom’ in 1932. Given the enthusiasm, passion and talent on show during science day 2012 at St Joseph’s who is to say that one of these Terenure boys won’t one day match Walton’s stellar achievements.