Young scientists take centre stage at Curious Minds Conference

Posted on 03 November 2023

Over 150 students, teachers, and members of the public flocked to the MOTAT Aviation Hall on Friday, October 20th, for the Curious Minds Conference. This inspiring event celebrated the achievements of young people participating in STEM research projects, supported by the Curious Minds South Auckland and WeSTEM programmes.

The conference began with a keynote address from Dr. Jacob Ngaha (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Kahu, and Waikato-Tainui), who shared his journey from watching a space documentary in year 13 to becoming New Zealand’s first Māori quantum physicist. He encouraged the audience to follow their natural curiosities and not be discouraged if they don't find their passion right away.

This was followed by the main feature: ten student-led group presentations covering a wide range of topics including testing the health of local awa, engineering design challenges and investigating alternative methods of horticulture production. The presentations were engaging and informative, and the Q&A sessions following each talk demonstrated the depth of interest and engagement from the audience.

Dr. Sneh Patel, WeSTEM Project Manager and emcee for the event, reflected on the importance of science communication for these young scientists. "Sharing your research with the wider community is a key part of the scientific process," she said. "Other scientists want to know your methodology to ensure that they can repeat your processes and that your findings can be reproduced.”

For Ying Yang, Curious Minds Project Manager, the event was also a brilliant opportunity to bring Te Hononga Akoranga COMET’s wide network of STEM stakeholders together. “Our projects are a reflection of the questions and challenges that students and schools care about. It is inspiring to see the level of excitement and passion these young people have for their research, and for our stakeholders to see how important it is to continue to encourage that curiosity through providing real-world STEM learning opportunities.”

The Curious Minds Conference was a resounding success, showcasing the talent and potential of the next generation of scientists. It was also a reminder of the importance of science communication in building a more informed and engaged society.

Thank you to all the presenters, event partners and supporters who made the day a big success: MOTAT, Dr. Jacob Ngaha, Dr. Michelle Dickinson and Noah Meggitt.

Full list of presenting groups

Aorere Kindergarten — Kaitiaki o te Puna
Tamariki at Aorere Kindergarten have undertaken an immersive exploration of their local streams and waterways in this project that saw them develop environmental responsibility beyond the kindergarten. Building on relationships with neighbouring Papatoetoe School and Aorere College, the tamariki have audited the existing biodiversity and learned about what habitats and conditions are needed for taonga species to thrive in their awa.

SAASIA Inc — Adopt an Ecosystem
Young tamariki at Rosebank Early Childhood Centre and Taulapapa Leata Sua Aoga Amata have been conducting a scientific inquiry on the biological processes that take place inside an ecosystem. The tamariki have learned how to create and sustain an ecosystem by building terrariums in the classroom and monitoring the growth of living species inside this small environment. They now look forward to expanding this learning on a larger scale in their local māra kai.

Royal Oak Primary — Kaitiaki o Maungakiekie
Eco-warriors at Royal Oak Primary School have been investigating the effectiveness of predator control on native bird populations at Maungakiekie / One Tree Hill. The school has been trialling the use of innovative birdsong monitors to analyse the type and number of birds present and observations over time are expected to help build a picture of the impacts of predator control efforts on bird numbers. The project is supported by science and community partners from the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, Maungakiekie Song Bird Trust, Predator Free 2040, the University of Auckland and Auckland Zoo.

Valley School — Investigating Eels in south Auckland’s waterways
Students at Valley School are investigating eel populations in partnership with Whitebait Connection. Students have undertaken an audit of their local stream to determine whether it contains the necessary conditions eels require to survive, which will help them understand the migration patterns of eels across the area. This is part of a wider project where Whitebait Connection is monitoring eel behaviour and habitats in south Auckland waterways.

Christ the King School — Pūtātara – A Call to Action
In response to the January flooding events in Tāmaki Makaurau, Christ the King Catholic School sprung into action. Ākonga in years 5 and 6 have been investigating the local history of Puketāpapa and whether future flooding events in this area could be minimised by adopting a water-sensitive design approach to urban development.

Manurewa Intermediate — Operation Automate Crystal Palace
Ākonga at Manurewa Intermediate School have been using robotics and engineering design thinking to develop solutions for automating their school greenhouse (aka the Crystal Palace). The challenge has been to maintain constant light, temperature and humidity to increase the greenhouse’s yield while simultaneously decreasing the labour and maintenance requirements. By automating greenhouse functions as much as possible, the school hopes to create a more efficient nursery to grow native tree seedlings, which they will gift to their local Adopt a Park programme for planting near local streams and waterways.

MPHS Community Trust — Te Waiora o Te Awa
The Maclaren Park Henderson South (MPHS) community have been undertaking a research project on the health of their local awa, Opanuku and Oratia. They have investigated the water quality to see how recent flood events have affected stream modifications, bank stability and erosion. They have also investigated the effect this will have on the biodiversity of the awa.

Green Bay High School — Lichens as Bioindicators of Air Quality
Green Bay High School are investigating the stories lichen tell about historical pollution within a local area. This project continues an ongoing collaboration with GNS scientists that included the students visiting the GNS science labs in Dunedin, where they could experience using large-scale facilities in a laboratory environment to analyse lichen.

Waiuku College — THRIVE – Smart, Sustainable Horticulture Production
Year 11 horticulture students at Waiuku College have set themselves a challenge to make horticulture more sustainable using smart technologies and innovation. They have been working with STEM experts from the University of Auckland and Youthtown to design and build a carbon-neutral modular vertical hydroponic garden for growing vegetable crops. Located in rural south Auckland, the rangatahi have leveraged community knowledge on effective growing practices to inform their design so they can share their innovations back to the local farmers and growers.

Ōtāhuhu College — Homegrown Taro and Plantain for Dinner
Senior ākonga at Ōtāhuhu College have been working on a horticulture project that investigates the best way to grow taro and plantain in south Auckland. They have conducted a scientific inquiry that explores the use of different fertilisers to see how this affects the size of the plant.