The Science Experience 2023

Dr Kieran Meaney, UNE Discovery

Earlier this year, UNE teamed up with The Science Experience to deliver a 3-day science camp for high school students. The Science Experience is a nationally run program across 30 different universities in Australia. The goal of the program is to give high school students with a passion for science a taste of university life and exposure to the many and varied disciplines in science.

From 17th – 19th January, 16 students from across northern NSW came to visit the UNE Armidale campus. These lucky students, who were all about to enter into school years 10 or 11, got to experience a little of the college lifestyle by staying at Mary White College here on campus.

On Tuesday, the first day, the students were officially welcomed to The Science Experience by Acting Vice Chancellor Professor Simon Evans. The activities of the day began with a trip to the Agronomy Potting Shed for some hands-on soil science with Dr. Ivanah Oliver. After getting their hands dirty learning about soil properties, they went out into the field (literally!) to put their new skills to the test. After washing up, it was then time to head over to CART (Centre for Animal Research & Teaching) for a demonstration of some of UNE’s analytical equipment with technician Malcolm Lambert. Students got a first hand look at UNE’s Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in action as it analysed some microfossils that were less than 1mm across.

In the afternoon the students had the opportunity to visit the ‘Kirby’ SMART Farm, where they were able to investigate different methods of measuring the amount of pasture or animal feed in a given paddock. Dr. Jamie Barwick guided the students through some straightforward methods to address a rather tricky question. Later, the students were treated to a bug catching expedition with UNE Discovery’s very own Dr. Chris Wacker as they explored the importance of insects in the environment and agriculture.

The final activity of a busy first day involved palaeontology with Dr. Nic Campione. Students found themselves measuring the skulls of different modern animals, such as kangaroos and foxes, before applying their new morphometrical insights to creatures no longer seen on this planet, such as velociraptor. After a well earned rest and some dinner, the students were treated to a trip out to Mt Duval, the highest peak in the Armidale local area, for a spotlighting expedition, learning how to spot native nocturnal animals.

Day two was just as action packed as the first. We jumped straight into a robotics coding activity with Dr. Will Billingsley, where students had the opportunity to program a virtual robot to complete a series of increasingly challenging tasks. From there, the students made their way over to the meat science lab where they learned all the secrets to making the perfect beef burger with Dr. Pete McGilchrist. The best part was everyone got to make and eat their own lunch!

Once lunch had settled, it was time to play with some dung beetles. Thomas Heddle and Jakia Sultana showed the students some lesser known facts about these underrated and highly useful beetles, including how fast they can go (There may have been a race or two)!

To round out the afternoon, the students got to pick the literal brain of neuroscientist Dr. Adam Hamlin. Here, our unsuspecting lab rats got to try out some interesting experiments on themselves and learn about a few of the bizarre things that our brains do without us realising.

The students were then treated to another evening excursion. This time it was a picnic at Dangars Falls in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, along with a short bushwalk to view the very scenic Dangars Gorge. UNE Discovery’s Dr. Kieran Meaney offered a few insights into just how this magnificent landscape formed over the past few million years.

But all good things must come to an end, and as the final day of The Science Experience dawned our students bid farewell to Mary White College for a final time (for now, maybe). Our first activity of the morning was taking another look inwards at the human body with Prof. Natkunam Ketheesan. Here the students learned about the workings of the body’s immune system, but they also had the chance to test their own blood and discover their blood group.

One of the final activities the students worked through was one of UNE Discovery’s up and coming school workshops: Crime Scene Investigation. Steph Richter-Stretton put the students through their paces to solve the mystery of the missing laptop using fingerprint analysis, dirty footprints, and a glowing test for the perpetrators blood! Crime Scene Investigation will be available to be booked on UNE Discovery Voyager school visits from term 2 onwards, so be sure to keep it in mind if you’re planning a Discovery Voyager visit later in the year.

The final event of The Science Experience was a career panel with an interesting mix of scientists from both UNE and the CSIRO. Our talented panel included Dr. Sonja Dominik, Associate Professor Tamsyn Crowley, Dr. Will Billingsley, and Dr. Oliver Knox. Students had the chance to hear about their diverse career paths and to ask and learn more about the different options and pathways through university and beyond.

As a final farewell, all of our terrific volunteers, staff, students, and their families were invited for a huge BBQ lunch. A great big thank you must go out to Era Espresso in Armidale for providing so much of the catering for this event.

Although we have mentioned a lot of people here, there were countless others behind the scenes who helped to make this wonderful event happen. A huge congratulations need to go to Dr. Chris Wacker, Steph Richter Stretton, and Lee-Anne McKinnon for organising this enormous and successful three days. We offer our heartfelt thanks to all of the laboratory technicians, assistants, demonstrators, and university students who put in so much work to make each aspect of The Science Experience a success.

We’re all looking forward to bringing The Science Experience back bigger and better in 2024. Watch this space later in the year for more details.