As we continue to navigate uncertain times, the crucial role that science plays in solving some of today’s greatest challenges is being underscored on a global scale. Now, more than ever, we must guide school students in developing a deeper appreciation and understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

The University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize is a short film competition that encourages school students to communicate a scientific concept in a way that is accessible and entertaining to the public while increasing their science knowledge or, as prize patrons Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and Adam Spencer like to say, "Learn something without even noticing”. Delivered as part of the prestigious Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, it supports budding young scientists across the nation, who will be our future leaders in research, discovery, and communication.

University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize patrons Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and Adam Spencer

The Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize is a short film competition that encourages school students to communicate a scientific concept in a way that is accessible and entertaining to the public.

Image: University of Sydney
© University of Sydney

Students are asked to focus on a scientific concept, discovery or invention, or their own scientific hypothesis; judges then make their selection based on a five-point rubric that covers two broad areas: science communication skills and entertainment. So, what are some ways you can assist a student with preparing a well-organised and imaginative response that addresses the assessment criteria?

A clear and logical sequence

Although the film making process will not be perfectly linear, it's essential that the film follows a clear and logical sequence. As tempting as it might be to dive into the practical side, planning is a crucial part of the process and will lay the groundwork for a compelling narrative. Once students have a clear direction in mind, it’s a good idea to turn the focus to developing a script, which will establish a roadmap and lay the foundations for a great submission. Spending some time refining their work, which should include reading it to someone else and talking through plans, is a worthwhile exercise that can have a huge impact on the quality of the final film.

Importantly, this is not a competition that rewards the highest production budget and best set design ...

Relevant examples, demonstrations, and visuals

By no means should entrants limit themselves to the 'piece to camera method' - animation, original diagrams, narration, and song are among the many ways entrants have presented their work in the past, and the judges have loved each one of them! Once filmmakers have a script together, they should identify which information could be enhanced by using an example, demonstration or visual aid. Thinking about how each idea might help effectively address other requirements will guide them in selecting the strongest to develop and incorporate.

At this point it can also be helpful to start thinking about how and where the film will be recorded, and visualising the work through a storyboard. It’s always surprising how quickly time flies by and given judges will only assess the first two minutes of each film. This step will play an important role in the filmmaking process.

2023 AM Eureka Prizes – Finalist

2023 Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize - Secondary runners-up, Alison and Kathlin, worked with animation for their entry.

Image: Supplied
© Australian Museum

Accurate science and appropriate language

You can’t believe everything you hear and read! Encourage students to refer to multiple sources while doing their research, then dedicate some time for fact checking before they start recording. Helping them reach out to an expert, like a university professor or even a PhD student, is also a great way for them to build knowledge around their chosen topic and can really add value to the experience.

Studying online footage of science communicators and thinking about what makes them so interesting and easy to understand, is one way that kids can refine their skills in this area. Get them to think critically about their observations through a few questions: is it the way they speak, how they present their knowledge … or something else?

In addition to Adam and Dr Karl, local science communicators kids might benefit from watching include Niraj Lal, Alice Motion, Alan Duffy and Professor Veena Sahajwalla. Each is a fantastic role model who continues to make science accessible to Australians through a variety of mediums. In fact, in recent years all three have been awarded a Eureka Prize for their work in this space, so there's no better starting point.

Dr Niraj Lal - winner, 2021 Celestino Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science

Through mediums including prime-time television, ground-breaking podcasts and a popular children’s book about gravity, Dr Niraj Lal has increased understanding and appreciation of science among Australians of all ages, and is a fantastic role model for kids wanting to see an Australian science communicator in action.

Image: Supplied
© Dr Niraj Lal

A passion for the chosen topic

The 2024 theme, ‘Energy, has been selected for its wide scope of interpretation, so there are plenty of opportunities for students to explore a topic that satisfies their curiosity. We've chosen to prescribe a definition as we feel this would be restrictive and hamper connections that only young minds could come up with. While entrants will need to demonstrate their passion, they will have the opportunity to address this criterion in the online entry form, too.

Help students get creative in identifying their topic through a quick brainstorming activity. It might be as simple as encouraging them to observe their surroundings at home, space by space, and record everything they associate with the theme. Fifteen minutes of documenting is bound to generate a substantial short list with at least one thing that aligns with an existing interest or ignites a new one. Dr Karl himself also offers some inspiration to kickstart the creative process in the above video.

2023 AM Eureka Prizes – Finalist

For their submission, primary school students Sophia and Scarlett used timelapse animation, graphics and drone footage to explain mycelium networks and their role in the forest.

Image: Supplied
© Australian Museum

Creative approaches

While working within the parameters of the prize information is essential, originality and flair are looked on favourably and can really make an entry stand out. While it might be interesting to know which films have been selected in the past, it’s important to understand that there is no winning formula, and judges aren’t look for a particular type of entry.

Is the chosen topic grounded in a recent news story that other entrants are likely to draw inspiration from? Are demonstrations based on original ideas? Will viewers get a glimpse of the entrant’s personality? These are just a few questions that might worth considering when preparing an entry. One thing that judges do appreciate, however, is the ability to hear and see content clearly, so we recommend that you assist young filmmakers with quality control in these areas. Encourage them to keep that wind away from the microphone, and if you’re squinting at those diagrams that have taken so long to prepare, the judges probably will be too.

2023 Eureka Prizes Awards Ceremony Media Wall – Winners

Darcy was selected winner of the 2023 Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize - Secondary, for his short film 'The Crazy World of Chlorophyll'.

Image: Tim Levy
© Australian Museum

Importantly, this is not a competition that rewards the highest production budget and best set design: the objective is to get kids engaged with, and excited by, STEM. So, whether it’s a passion for science or a knack for film-making that you’re seeking to satisfy, the Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize is sure to both entertain and educate curious minds!

Entries to the 2024 University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prizes are now open, and close at 7pm AEST Friday 12 April.