Stories to inspire the under-12s into science win prizes

The University of Manchester has been part of a bi-lingual project which has awarded prizes to the authors of short stories aimed at children under the age of 12 with the aim of sparking their interests in the world of science.

The ‘Science me a Story’ competition was run by the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK) and sponsored by the Lily Foundation with Professor David Kirby, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at The University of Manchester joining the evaluation committee alongside others from science and literature fields at the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool.

Last week at The Instituto Cervantes in Manchester, six prizes were awarded out of 50 entries.

Normal Jenny by Anthony Lewis (London-based digital producer and biologist), The Banyan Tree by Eleanor Palmer (third year medical student at The University of Manchester) and A Reef to Call Home by Asiem Sanyal (marine biologist) won first, second and third prizes respectively in the English category.

Prizes for stories in Spanish went to Ester Martí for María and the Lost Codex, A sister for cell Celia by Ana Isabel Rodríguez Rodríguez (PhD student at the University of Edinburgh) and a third shared position for The stars fall by Consuelo Cid Tortuero, lecturer at the University of Alcala and ¡Hello, Mrs. E. coli! by Isabel Murillo Cabeza, lecturer at the University of Bristol.

As part of the Prize, the winner stories have been published in Principia Magazine (Spanish category) and the University of Liverpool Literature and Science Hub (English category).

Stories had to be no longer than four pages and be centred around themes of science, scientific methods, research processes, scientific discovery or the everyday lives of scientists and could be fictional or non-fictional.

Isabel Peset Martin, an organiser of the event and a member of staff at The University of Manchester said: “We are very happy with the reception that Science-me a story contest has had. We are very surprised and excited about the high number of participants who sent their stories to this first edition.”

The awards were presented in October at the Manchester Cervantes Institute as well as the winning entries being published in either Spanish or English science communication media, depending on which category they were entered into.

The English language entries can be read here.

The Banyan Tree by Eleanor Palmer

As we sit in the warm shade of a banyan tree, I turn to my young companion who looks at me with dark brown eyes full of wonder. I see myself, her grey-tinged hero, reflected in those clear, bright eyes. She sits happily beside me, her mind like a perfectly ripe apple waiting to be plucked from a tree, as she hangs on my every word. I stretch out my stiff legs and consider what story I shall share with her.

“What shall we talk about today, young one?” I ask. She pauses for a moment and then demands, “Tell me about science, Dadaji!” I smile and consult my long white beard.

“Sita, do you know about how man first came to study the great art of science?” She shakes her head rapidly in earnest anticipation of the story budding on her grandfather’s lips. I question, “The art of science – a contradiction, no?” Sita looks puzzled as the cogs whirr ferociously inside her head. “My dear girl, stop and think a moment. What is science? How can we ever define such a marvellous subject which soars as high as mountains and flows like the great Ganges? In science we are witness to unseen beauty just like in great art. Look at those flowers, Sita. Why do they grow small and delicate whilst this banyan tree is strong and wide?” “I don’t know, Dadaji,” she replies. “Give it time and you will understand. Everything is part of the great circle of life. Every breath we take is filled by the air of this world and shared over centuries millions and millions of times over. Have you ever breathed and stopped to think, I wonder how many people have breathed in this same air before me? A truly miraculous thought. And how do we know about such great thoughts as these? It is science, Sita, which has brought us these gifts of knowledge.” Sita grins at me with unconcealed admiration and considers my words for a while, cocking her head to and fro in deep concentration. I continue, “Since man has first had a thought in his head and dreamed, there has been science in the world. We are explorers you and I, set on a quest, conquerors chasing an endless goal. ‘We are the dreamers of dreams’. But this curiosity is our blessing and our curse.” Sita frowns. “Why is it a curse, Dadaji?”

“Because, my child, sometimes we cannot always reach that goal we are chasing. We fall short. We place our hopes in the ideas which burst from our minds like birds from their nest, but like the birds, sometimes our hopes cannot take flight.” We sit and listen as the banyan tree croaks angrily with the weight of the noisily chirping birds. Sita looks up at the branches and watches the light flickering between the dark brooding leaves.

“I don’t understand Dadaji. If we are all scientists, why have I never made a big discovery? The only science I see is what is what I read in those dusty, old textbooks from school. I want to find something that no-one else has. I want to be a famous scientist and for people to come to my door and say ‘Wow, look! Look at the great and powerful Sita with all of her many discoveries!” I chuckle as I watch her eyes swell with ambition. She stands up and shouts, “I, Sita, swear on this great and holy banyan tree, that I shall become the best scientist who ever lived!”

“Stop all that shouting, potee! The banyan tree will wake from its slumber and pull you down into the roots of the earth with all the creatures that live there.” Sita scuttles away from the tree in fear, and comes to sit on my lap with her arms wrapped tight around her legs. Her eyes dart cautiously between the long roots of the tree as she inspects their great strength. “To be a great scientist, you must be very brave,” I whisper as I stroke her long dark hair wistfully, “Sometimes the whole world will doubt you and you will stand alone without a single friend beside you. But if you have the strength to believe in yourself and your ideas, you will be as strong as this old banyan tree.” Sita looks up at me and smiles, reassured that she will not be dragged into the depths of the earth. She sings gently and bends her head low as she carefully considers the patch of flowers next to the tree. A bee contentedly buzzes around the flowers, momentarily drawing Sita’s attention, until suddenly she darts off behind the tree on her way to make new daring discoveries. I already know that the seed in her young mind has been planted, and one day it shall blossom and grow tall enough to reach even higher than the great banyan.

(“Dadaji” means Grandfather in Hindi, “potee” means granddaughter)

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