15 November 2022

Budding Canberra students win medals in 'Olympic Games for science'

| James Coleman
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Merici College’s Georgia Tonkin and Narrabundah College’s Adrian Lehan won in the 2022 International Science Olympiads. Photo: Australian Science Innovations.

Adrian Lehane, who’s just graduated from Narrabundah College, is officially one of the world’s leading earth scientists.

The budding astrophysicist won two gold medals in the Earth Science category of the International Science Olympiads.

The annual event is basically the Olympic Games for science students. A total of 800 students from 89 nations vie for medals across the four science categories of biology, chemistry, earth science and physics.

The competitions are hosted in a different county each year and take the form of experiential and theory exams, all overseen by an international governing body and sanctioned by UNESCO. This year’s was meant to be held in the Aosta Valley in Italy, but due to lingering issues with international travel, it was online-only for the third year in a row.

Each year, the Australian Science Innovations (ASI) organisation selects Australian competitors through an entrance exam and summer school program.

For 2022, 17 students from 13 ACT, NSW, Victoria and Queensland schools made the cut. Of these, five took home gold medals, while seven won silver and five bronze. This puts Australia among the top 20 countries.

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The bulk of this success was in the Earth Science category, which combines skills in geology, meteorology, environmental science and terrestrial astronomy to understand the processes that shape our planet.

Adrian and his family are overjoyed that all the hard work has paid off with such a prestigious award.

“I’ve always been interested in science and learning about science, as well as coding,” he says.

He’s been trying to get into the International Science Olympiads since Year 9 when he first undertook the entrance exam at the suggestion of the school’s librarian.

Adrian then attended the two-week-long summer school at the start of 2021 for an intense learning experience covering rock types, geology and other earth and climate-related topics. From the initial group of 30, he made it into a team of eight selected to represent Australia at the Olympiads in August 2022.

For these, the competition took the form of a written exam of 70 questions to be completed within two hours. The results were released in early October.

His mum Kate says he has always looked at scientific problems and tried to work them out from a young age.

“He has done all the external exams he could and taken all the opportunities he could,” she says.

For instance, Adrian became involved in the ACT Government’s Science Mentors ACT program in Year 9. This speciality science offering provides public school students in Years 9 to 12 with the opportunity to work with science and engineering professionals on investigations.

As part of this, Adrian has been busily calculating the illumination of the planet Venus at the McNamara-Saunders Astronomical Teaching Telescopes (MSATT), an astronomical teaching/learning facility at the Mount Stromlo Observatory.

“His interest in astronomy was picked up through school at the MSATT, which nurtures those skills,” Kate says.

“Now it’s influenced his career choice.”

Adrian graduated school earlier this year and is now looking to pursue a degree in astronomy and astrophysics at the Australian National University (ANU).

He wasn’t the only local success story. Year 12 student Georgia Tonkin at Merici College, a Catholic all-girls school in Braddon, won bronze in the Earth Science category. She took up the invitations for the entrance exam and summer school but never dreamed of making it further.

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“I wasn’t really expecting it – I was just there to have a good experience,” she says.

“I’ve never really been interested in earth science, so this was really my first experience with it. And nobody in my family is into science at all, so nobody knew what the Olympiads were. It caught us all by surprise.”

Georgia hopes to study science at university but still hasn’t worked out exactly what field yet.

“I’ve definitely realised just how broad earth science is. Before, I had a perception it was just about rocks, but it’s a huge realm of science. And you see applications of all the other types of science.”

ASI executive director Alyssa Weirman says we should be delighted, if not surprised, by the nation’s results in the Olympiads.

“You don’t have to be the smartest kid in school to become a great scientist,” she says.

“Science is about problem-solving and critical thinking. The very best outcomes can be achieved by having a diversity of thought, background and experience in the science community. Just like the sporting Olympics, the key to success is commitment, perseverance, practice and training.”

Registrations for the next Australian Science Olympiads, the pathway to the International Science Olympiads, open mid next year. For more information, visit ASI.

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