Nfld. & Labrador

Virtual science fair leads to new discoveries, opportunities for students

Nicolas Flowers, a student who takes a chemistry class from a teacher he has never met in person, created a qulliq, a traditional Inuit lamp made out of soapstone. The goal of the project was to determine whether seal oil could be used as a viable fuel source for the lamp.

Nicolas Flowers takes a chemistry class from a teacher he has never met in person

Amos Comenius Memorial School Grade 12 student Nicolas Flowers wanted to find out if seal oil could serve as a viable fuel for lamps for his virtual science fair project. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Science fairs usually involve a lot of poster board and glue. But thanks to advancements in technology, the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial science fair is going digital.

Nicolas Flowers, a Grade 12 student from Amos Comenius Memorial School in Hopedale, takes a chemistry course in a virtual classroom. He logs in from a special classroom at his school, and works with his teacher, Yvonne Dawe, whom he's never met in person.

"To be able to access that is amazing," Flowers told The St. John's Morning Show. "And it definitely prepares us for university when we get older."

Dawe, a member of the Eastern Newfoundland Science Fairs Council, said moving the science fair online allows more students across the province to get involved.

"We realized what was missing was students from the rest of the province," Dawe said.

Flowers created a qulliq, a traditional Inuit lamp made of soapstone. The goal of his project was to determine whether seal oil could be used as a viable fuel source for the lamp — to find its "fuel value," measured as the amount of energy generated by the complete combustion of a mass of fuel.

After working with Dawe and members of Memorial University's chemistry department at Memorial, Flowers found his answer.

Flowers boiled water in a can, and measured the heat change that came off the can. The numbers were than compared with common lamp fuels such as kerosene and paraffin.

It's a solution to an issue that doesn't just exist here in Newfoundland- Yvonne Dawe

"It's definitely pretty hot," Flowers said. "We discovered it doesn't range as high as the kerosene and paraffin, but it definitely goes above the methanol and ethanol. And in our opinion that's pretty reasonable [for lamp oil]."

Flowers said the project could benefit rural communities, which was his inspiration for doing for research.

"The whole idea of this is to prove in a small community, such as Hopedale where I grew up and I'm from, where lamp oil such as kerosene and paraffin aren't as easily accessible. It's good to know that there's a resource such as seal oil that's readily accessible and we can use it as a reasonable fuel," Flowers said.

Now that the research is complete, Flowers will take place in the virtual science fair later this month. Rather than presenting in person, participants will enter a group call on Skype, and present their findings in a slideshow.

The contest is open to any student in central or western Newfoundland, as well as Labrador, in both the English and French school systems.

"To my knowledge this is the first time we've had a virtual science fair,"said Dawe. "It's a solution to an issue that doesn't just exist here in Newfoundland. Other provinces as well have had the challenge of trying to put off a science fair, especially in smaller regions. So I guess it's groundbreaking in a way."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show