Salute to Shanghai's budding scientists

Local students are diving into research and innovation, with impressive results.
Salute to Shanghai's budding scientists
Ti Gong

Students from Xidu School show their multi-color narcissus flowers to a visitor at the China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair.

Children in Shanghai are embracing science and creativity as the government promotes public innovation. Youngsters are also being encouraged to think beyond their textbooks and work on their own creative projects.

In honor of International Children’s Day, Shanghai Daily sought out the stories of local students who combine intelligence with imagination.

Novel narcissus cultivators

The Chinese narcissus is usually white, but four students at Xidu School in Fengxian District have cultivated multi-colored strains of the flower, and have even patented their intellectual property.

The idea came to the students when they wanted to make the flower looked more festive, as it usually blooms during the Spring Festival.

Their method was simple, but time consuming to perfect. The plan was to inject pigments into the plant and when the flower absorbed water, the water would carry color to the petals.

But the process was not easy. As the narcissus is usually planted in December, blooms in January and withers in February, the student researchers, under the guidance of teacher Li Ying, spent three years to achieve their intended results.

“The most difficult and most important part was to find the right pigments,” said Zhang Haoyu, a six-grader who joined the team in the second year of the project. “It’s a long process to find a colorant that could present colors stably in flowers and to make each flower colorful.”

In the first year, they injected store-bought pigments and found they did not work. Some of these products made the flowers wither and others made the plants die.

Under the guidance of Jin Tianze, vice director of the district’s youth activity center and director of the district’s youth academy of sciences, they developed a colorant that does not harm the plant and does not influence the life cycle of the flower.

After much trial and error, they finally found the best position for pigment injection, which made it possible for the flowers to show not only a single color, but also multiple colors and gradients.

They were also invited to display their flowers at the China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair in April.

“I’m so proud of the kids,” said Li. “Though only four students successfully cultivated a seven-colored narcissus, some previous students, who left the school for others, also contributed a lot and left their research notes to the successors.”

Earthworm researcher

Zhang Shuoheng, a 12 years old student, has an uncommon hobby: Studying earthworms. And he takes it quite seriously.

“I had more than 30,000 earthworms last year,” said Zhang. He divided the earthworms into 30 groups and designed different diets of leaves for each group.

Inspired by his grandfather who was a chemist, Zhang is fascinated with science. He even read about earthworms when his classmates were playing games. His passion has also earned him the nickname “earthworm man.”

“I like it,” said Zhang. “It shows how good I am at studying earthworms.”

Zhang’s study aims to build a sustainable eco-system by using earthworms to clear up the fallen leaves in the city. “The worms are fed on the fallen leaves,” said Zhang. “The excreta of the worms can be fertilizer for plants.”

It could take up to a week for Zhang to prepare leaves for all the worms. One point, his parents were concerned about his devotion to these slimy creatures and their eating habits.

“It took so much of his time and energy that his performance in class was declining,” said Zhang’s father, Zhang Ruiqin, who wanted to toss the worms.

Zhang’s grandfather settled the matter. “My father told me we shouldn’t strangle a child’s enthusiasm,” said Zhang Ruiqin. “But guide it to the right direction.”

“It was messy but somehow a lot of fun,” said Zhang Ruiqin, who also recalled that the family had to fight rats that were coming to prey on the worms. “They were extremely intelligent. Mouse traps hardly worked at all.”

Now Zhang’s class performance is getting better. He is preparing for the final exams.

Salute to Shanghai's budding scientists

Zhao Siying poses with three of her prize-winning inventions — a tool to correct children's hand posture, a space-saving desk and triple-folded notebook — and the city mayor’s certificate awarded for teen science and technology innovation.  

Pre-teen prize-winner

Zhao Siying, a student at Hangzhou Road No. 1 Primary School in Yangpu District, has already won several prestigious awards for her inventions.

Last year the 11-year-old girl became the youngest winner of city mayor’s award for teen science and technology innovation. Her space-saving two-layer desk also helped her achieve the top prize in the Shanghai Adolescents Science and Technology Innovation Contest.

Two years ago, a tool she invented to correct children’s posture won a national prize and earned a patent. Her triple-folded notebook won first prize at the Shanghai Adolescents Originality Fair that same year, and her design is now being manufactured.

Zhao is described as a child with wide-ranging interests by her mother, Xu Ting. “She has many interests, such as piano, sports and games. But what attracts her most is reading,” said Xu. The girl read books independently when she was in kindergarten.

Hu Jianmin, head of the juvenile center providing guidance in science and technology in the district, said Zhao often joins the events organized by this center and is interested in many fields. “She retains a passion and curiosity toward the world and always comes up with new ideas,” said Hu, who also praised the girl’s thinking and expression.

Zhao started her inventing career as a first grader. When she was learning how to write, she found her hand posture is wrong and the assistive tools on the market did not fix her fingers. Zhao decided to make a tool on her own.

Her first product was made with plasticine. Although it looked crude, the design caught the eye of her science teacher Ji Lili. “This creative idea showed that Zhao observes things in life carefully,” said Ji. “And a small invention can be highly original.”

Over the years, Zhao has created many more inventions. Her case was cited as one fruit of the city's promotion of science education among children and adolescents by the Shanghai Science Education Development Foundation.

According to the foundation, it has provided support to more than 150 student science projects in the past decade by building bridges between schools and laboratories at scientific research institutes, and hosting teen science and innovation competitions.

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