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Science

Europe's young supergeeks put the fun into science for coveted prize in Prague

Schoolchildren often hate the sciences - put off by the amount of learning involved. So it's good to remind kids that science can be fun and rewarding. They may even take up a scientific career.

Science and technology are crucial for a nation's economy, and the key is getting the brightest and best minds to choose scientific careers from an early age. But you've also got to show kids that science can be fun and rewarding.

"It's really, really important to get as many young people excited about science as possible. They're the next generation of scientists," says Fred Turner, an 18-year-old from Yorkshire in the UK, and a winner at this year's European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS).

"If you don't get them excited about it and passionate about it, the EU's going to lag behind the rest of the world."

Home-made DNA "photocopier"

Fred is excited about science. He's also remarkably good at it. He represented Great Britain at EUCYS in Prague.

And he brought along something called a Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR machine, a contraption that allows scientists to copy specific regions of DNA.

Fred, who's going to Oxford University this year, couldn't afford a lab-standard machine. So he made one at home out of bits of metal, microprocessors and a touchpad.

"A commercial PCR machine costs about 3,000 pounds ($4,870)," says Fred.

Fred Turner, a winner at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists 2013 (Photo: Rob Cameron)

One of the winners: Fred Turner with his DNA "photocopier"

"I wanted to do a PCR machine to have a genetics lab at home so I could study various genes," he says. "Obviously I couldn't afford a proper machine for 3,000 pounds, so I decided to try and build one. And mine ended up costing about 250 pounds."

"I would demonstrate it to you, but it's a bit tricky getting genetic material through airport security."

Fostering ingenuity

It's just this sort of ingenuity that the contest is trying to foster and promote. Each year twenty seven EU countries, plus another 10 guest nations, send their best and brightest young scientists to compete for a number of prizes. This year there were 126 of them.

Contestants included a pair of Turkish secondary school students who are doing research into cancer treatment, a Hungarian amateur poker player who's built a poker-playing robot, and a young Lithuanian who's trying to genetically modify lilies to make them more suitable to the Baltic climate.

"The real intent is to bring young, bright, talented scientists to present their fabulous projects, which is great," says Katerina Sobotkova, chief manager of the 2013 EUCYS contest.

A demonstration at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (Photo: Rob Cameron)

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"We also want to let the public see what they can do at their age, which is just amazing. And also mingle them and just make international friendships and share their projects," Sobotkova says.

Slightly apart from the contest area, where the students presented their ideas behind little white booths as jury members circulate, was a public area where Czech secondary school students were able to mix with members of the public.

A number of technical schools set up stalls, demonstrating the voice-changing properties of various chemicals, even making ice-cream from what looked like dry ice.

Fear of physics

"The problem at the moment is that not so many young people are going in for technical sciences. Most young people are aiming for economics, law and medicine," says Martin Samek, from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

His stall - featuring robots that his students had made at school - was one of the most popular.

"I think there's a kind of fear among students. A fear of mathematics, physics and other really hard technical sciences and courses," Samek says.

A demonstration at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (Photo: Rob Cameron)

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"So the task of these small robots is to get the students more familiar and lose their fear of these subjects."

There was little fear on display at the Vystaviste Trade Palace - the rooms were buzzing - sometimes literally - with creative energy.

But the organizers - everyone from the Czech Academy of Sciences right up to the EU's Directorate General for Research and Innovation - are in no doubt that as emerging economies like China and India make quantum leaps in scientific and technical skill, attracting young Europeans to scientific careers is a top priority.

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