The Topics for 2017

A topic is done in each school term.  Teams have to qualify for the National Finals, which are held early in Term Four.

Space Junk (Problem 1 for Term One)

Since the early days of space flight, a wide variety of discarded materials have been left floating in multiple orbits around the earth.  Space junk as defined by NASA is "any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function". Ranging from minute objects, some smaller than 1cm, others include nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages and mission-related debris up to the size of a double decker bus, an estimated 100 million pieces of space debris are hurtling round the Earth at speeds of up to 28,000 kph. Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. A number of  the space shuttle’s windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analysed and shown to be paint flecks. One expert has warned that space junk is one of the greatest environmental problems facing humanity. Large pieces of space junk landing on populated areas could be catastrophic, but it could also jeopardise future generation’s hopes of living and working in space.

Will this space junk pose a peril for future flights?  When the discards fall to earth, what damage might occur on Earth?  Who should be responsible for the management of space junk?

It's All In The Genes (Problem 2 for Term Two)

The genes of organisms can be altered using biotechnology techniques. New genes can be inserted into plants and animals to create new varieties and breeds or to lessen certain genetic activity such as susceptibility to disease. Since 1970 GM has helped produce greater numbers of crops with higher nutritional value and has been prominent in animal agriculture. Critics claim there are serious ethical, ecological, and economic issues with GM techniques. For example, GM crops can cross-pollinate with non-GM crops creating unpredictable characteristics in plants. Bioherbicides and bioinsecticides can be added to crop seeds, but are not always effective. Resistant weeds now infest 75 million acres of land across the world. Domesticated animals are being genetically modified to produce proteins that have applications for human medicine – proteins to control blood clotting or kill cancer cells, for example.

What will be the long-term impact of genetic modification of plants and animals? If plants and animals are genetically modified to resist current pathogens, will new, more resistant pathogens develop? Already, GM has led to international controversy and trade disputes, protests, and restrictive regulations on commercial products containing genetically modified organisms.

3D Printing (Qualifying Problem for Term Three)

3D printing is an emerging technology that was first used in arts and hobbies. Because of its widespread applications, 3D printing is now being used in business, medicine, and industry. In biochemistry, engineers create 3D printed body parts. NASA has a 3D printer on the International Space Station. The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking into the feasibility of building a base on the moon using 3D printing. 3D printers are already inexpensive enough to use at home and universal enough for schools to include them as part of their technology or “maker” programs. The technology continues to develop at a fast pace and many breakthroughs are on the horizon. Experts predict there will be improvements to printing speed and quality and that 3D printed food and 3D bioprinting will soon be the norm.

What are the implications for global industries when people might be able to print anything they need at home? What are the implications for intellectual property rights when people are able to download patterns for whatever they want to print, whether it is physical, food, or biological? What if people can print their own weapons or vehicles? How might 3D printing evolve - 4D printing? Nanotechnology?

© CRW 2017