Calling on teams of kids with a passion for science

Issue: Volume 97, Number 19

Posted: 26 October 2018
Reference #: 1H9n9p

Science competitions, be they regional, national or international, have become a focus for a group of Wellington secondary students. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’re hoping to get others around the country involved.

A team from Wellington High School has entered the International Young Naturalists Tournament (IYNT), a tournament combining physics, biology and chemistry, for the last two years.

The tournament is big in Europe and Asia and Assistant Head of Science Murray Chisholm is keen to make it big in New Zealand.The team recently returned from a trip to Georgia, where they won bronze medals, and last year’s team won gold medals at the tournament in Nanjing.

The interest in tournaments for Wellington High School started in 2008 when then Principal Prue Kelly received a request to get involved.

Prue didn’t need to work hard to get Assistant Head  of Science Murray Chisholm on board. In that first tournament the teams came last and second to last, but they’ve slowly worked their way up.

Murray says the students prepare in the four months before each tournament.

“For each problem, the kids need to have a solution. They need to be able to argue it, rebut arguments and reflect on both of these in the sum-up.

For the tournament, three teams are drawn at a time, and they’re given the challenge to debate three of the problems over three hours.

“It’s all dependent on the preparation before the kids get to the tournament. They didn’t stop working the whole time – they worked most weekends, making arguments and helping each other. It was so good to watch them at the tournament talk with such confidence,” he says.

Murray says the research a 15-year-old had done on the variability of blood pressure was great.

“She is a quiet girl who rarely asked for any help, but what she came out with was outstanding.”

How the tournaments work

Every year the international science committee releases a list of 17 open-ended science questions to be used in the IYNT. Competitors in the NZYST will have to investigate seven of the problems chosen by IYNT NZ. The problems don’t have existing answers so students need to use Google, talk to teachers and so on.

Preparation stages include research through books and the internet, experiments to verify what their theory says and then putting all the work into a short PowerPoint presentation.

What kids say about the tournaments

“I hadn’t done any science competitions before, and I didn’t know how to approach the problems. My task was investigating blood pressure and pulse rates, but I was required to create a specific problem.” Millie Rea, Year 12.

Luke observing radioactive decay with a home-made cloud chamber.

“A misconception is that you have to be really smart and really good at physics. I failed NCEA Level 1 because I was so engrossed in preparation, but it paid off and now I’m doing Scholarship physics this year.”
Zuni Preece, Year 13.

“We almost formed a wee family and we bonded really well. We wouldn’t have met if we didn’t do these tournaments, it’s actually really fun. It’s such a cool thing to be part of, and your public speaking skills improve heaps.”
Ella Blakely, Year 11.

“It was a big deal for me when I got accepted. I was a latecomer to science and I’d never participated in anything extra in science. One of the problems I investigated was why a drinking straw in a glass of water rises to the top, I needed to investigate the reason why it sometimes topples.” Sai August, Year 13.

“I’ve got a curious mind and I know that’s really helped.” Luke Roeven, Year 13.

The students all agree the key to success is determination, perseverance, curiosity, dedication, and “it really helps if you’re interested in science!”

Prue Kelly and Murray Chisholm discussing topics for next year’s International Young Naturalists Tournament.

About Prue Kelly and Kāhui Ako | Communities of Learning

The daughter of a peripatetic principal, Prue Kelly began primary school teaching in the Bay of Plenty at the start of the baby boom. Here she talks about the collaborative approach to guiding the development of Kāhui Ako.

I enjoyed primary teaching; I particularly enjoyed intermediate teaching in my father’s school. After a stint teaching in Australia, I realised I needed a degree so came back to grow our family in New Zealand and studied extramurally – thanks to an automatic washing machine and dryer! I went to the University of Auckland for my final year then became a geography teacher in Birkenhead. Fast forward and I became principal of Wellington High School, where I stayed for 17 years.

Three years ago I was contracted to the Ministry to chair the New Appointments National Panel. It’s a group of experienced educators that oversees the appointment of leaders and across school teachers of Kāhui Ako. We make sure those people meet the national criteria and have the collaborative skills to guide the development of the Kāhui Ako.

What’s especially marvellous is hearing teachers say they have learnt so much from what other local schools are doing. There is a spirit of sharing and feeling of responsibility for all the tamariki in their community developing. It is pretty well established in many of the earlier schools.

It really drives me, the notion of Kāhui Ako and the rationale behind it, schools working together to build good practice and build teacher capability and, through that, tamariki growing and improving their learning.

With 214 Kāhui Ako being formed, this is a great cultural change. It’s not a competitive model, it’s a sharing model. It’s a change that’s going on across the country. I’m hopeful that it will reduce some of the competition between schools, and caregivers will come to realise that their local school is as effective as every other school in the community. 

For the first time ever, there is funding available that gives teachers time to go into other classrooms and reflect on what they see, to discuss why and how practice may be improved with skilful teachers there to guide them.

Prue kelly’s takeouts for teachers

Be willing to open your classroom and share all the good things you do.

Remember, you can learn a lot from other teachers and they can learn from you.

If someone you know and respect comes into your class and questions why you’re doing things a certain way, it helps you to reflect on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Try something different and adapt it to see if it works better for Billy, Rawiri or Hana.

How to get involved

The New Zealand Young Scientists’ Tournament (NZYST) will be held in mid-March 2019 in Wellington. Visit for details. Following a rigorous selection process, the New Zealand team will be chosen to go to the seventh IYNT in Belarus in July. The set of problems for the 2019 tournament is available on the IYNT website.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 4:17 pm, 26 October 2018

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