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Two SA Learners Scoop International Science Awards

Mandisa Xaba
Veeasha Packirisamy

Two South African learners, Mandisa Xaba and Veeasha Pickirisami, scooped international science awards and flew the South African flag high at the 2017 Beijing Young Scientist Creation Conference, held recently at the University of China Academy of Sciences. The conference was attended by more than 80 young scientists from around the world.

Mandisa, whose project was titled Aspects: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Clean Energy Technology, is from Sakhelwe High School in KwaZulu-Natal. Veeasha’s project was titled Biodegradable Eat-Tensils. She is from Kimberly Girls’ High School. Their innovative projects generated a lot discussion among the conference delegates. SAASTA assists learners such as Mandisa and Veeasha who are passionate about science and innovation to attend the conference on an annual basis.

The participation at the conference is an offshoot of SAASTA’s partnership with the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. SAASTA Project Coordinator, Mr Chipa Maimela accompanied the learners to Beijing. The learners were selected to attend the international conference in Beijing after they had participated in and received awards for their projects in the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists.

Q&A with Mandisa Xaba

SAASTA: What was your project about?
MX: I investigated the production of heat energy from CO2 emissions as an alternative source of heat. The procedure involved in heat generation was a thermodynamic process I came up with, where I investigated forces applied mechanically within the system with CO2 emissions. The conditions necessary for an increase in temperature in the system included the fact that it had to be thermodynamically closed, a fixed volume of the gas had to be present and there had to be “airflow” exerted internally.

The project also included a mathematical analysis of force behavior and how this relates to the results. Since three types of forces were investigated, namely shaking, compression and rotary forces, mathematical functions were drawn stipulating the motion of these forces and a new algorithm of interpreting these functions. A chemical analysis of the emissions was also included as one of the experiments when attempting to explain the behavior of the results.

SAASTA: How did you feel when you won the gold award?
MX: I was ecstatic about winning, because the standard of the competition was very high in Beijing and I was up against students from China, the Czech Republic and Denmark, just to name a few. At first, I felt extremely nervous about whether I will bring back home a gold medal or not. I did and it was a goal achieved!

SAASTA: What does it mean to you?
MX: This award proves that I can change the world for the better if I want to. I can do all things! It has humbled me greatly, knowing that if I want to win I have to go for it without arrogance or bragging to the world that I can accomplish it. I can do it all by myself!

SAASTA: What have you learnt in this competition?
MX: As an individual you will never know everything. I was really inspired by projects from other categories, especially engineering. The students from China helped me realise that I can never be smart enough. I always have to dig deep to find solutions using my God-given gifts. I have also learnt to seek knowledge, both scientifically and academically.

SAASTA: What are your plans for this project?
MX: I plan to continue with my research when I enroll at university. I hope I will find an engineering solution after thoroughly investigating the science of the project.

SAASTA: What inspires you?
MX: A 2014 Intel ISEF Gordon E. Moore award winner, Jack Andraka, who discovered an efficient and cheaper pancreatic cancer detection procedure, inspired me. I noticed he was 15 years old at the time. I also wanted to do similar research about the topic that would interest me, which I did. I wanted to find a solution to energy depletion by introducing a new source of car fuel CO2. I also wanted to sharpen my mathematical thinking skills.

SAASTA: What are you future plans?
MX: My dream is to follow a career in physics or mathematics as a scientist, or a mathematician. My second option, however, is to do engineering and major in aeronautics and aerodynamics since I would like to find out more about mechanical measures in order to manipulate energy consumed by airplanes.

Q&A with Veeasha Packirisamy

SAASTA: What was your project about?
VP: Many takeout food places give us plastic cutlery to eat with. People then dispose of them and they end up in the oceans or on land where it leads to pollution. Not only does the plastic harm the environment, but the production of plastic is also extremely bad for the health of humans.

Because of all these negative aspects of plastic, a new alternative for plastic cutlery has been made - Biodegradable Eat-Tensils. They are made completely out of food substances such as wheat flour, rice flour and corn starch. Cinnamon and sugar were also added, but these ingredients can be changed to complement other foods.

After the product was made, tests were done to check if it is environmentally friendly or not. The tests were done to determine the degradability of the product compared to a plastic spoon. In one test, the product and the plastic spoon were buried in soil for 15 days. In another test, the product and plastic spoon were put in water for 24 hours. After 24 hours, calculations on the level of degradation were made. The results showed that the plastic spoon did not degrade in either test, whereas the product had degraded 54.54% in the soil and 63.63% in water. This proved that the product is able to degrade, and is potentially more environmentally friendly than plastic. The price of the product had also been calculated and it was proven that the product would be cheaper than a plastic spoon. The product was given to people to taste and they liked it very much. The ultimate goal is to see that takeout places provide the Eat-Tensil instead of plastic cutlery. You would be able to eat your food and then eat your spoon or throw it away without harming the environment.

SAASTA: How did you feel when you won the gold?
VP: I felt extremely motivated and proud of myself to have won this award at the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition. It also makes me feel very excited to see what the future holds for me.

SAASTA: What does it mean to you?
VP: It means a lot to me that I have won an international award. It has proven to me that I am capable of things that I never could have imagined I could do, and it has opened my mind to greater things. It is the greatest accomplishment I have achieved in my entire life so far and it will have a positive impact on my future.

SAASTA: What have you learnt in this competition?
VP: I have learnt that you can do whatever you set your mind on. You must believe in yourself. I have also learnt about a new culture and for that, I am truly grateful. It has taught me how to adjust in unfamiliar situations, how to be independent and, most of all, how to appreciate what life has to offer.

SAASTA: Any plans for the project?
VP: My plans for my project are to get it recognised, so that people become aware of the huge problem of pollution and the fact that it can be changed. My plans are also to get the product to the market and for it to be used by some fast-food outlets.

SAASTA: What inspires you?
VP: The challenge of all the litter around the world has motivated me to come up with ideas to change it. Plastic is one of the major causes of pollution. Many people have already come up with ways to stop plastic pollution, such as biodegradable plastics. However, biodegradable plastics cannot be used for cutlery because it will not have a pleasant taste in your mouth when eating with it. Ideas then flowed into my head, I did thorough research and then this idea came up.

SAASTA: What are you future plans?
VP: I am planning to follow a career in an engineering field where I can use my ideas to create things and make a difference. I can then afterwards open my own business. I would also like to work overseas to get more experience, then come back, and use that knowledge to help South Africa in any way I can.