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The Science of Chocolate

COSTA RICA | Saturday, 20 September 2008 | Views [1289]

The boys from Mastatal school with their prizes after winning the regional heats

The boys from Mastatal school with their prizes after winning the regional heats

Each week I´ve been filling a teaching slot at the local elementary school, 45 minutes on Tuesday from 12.15 to 1.00pm. It´s extra curricular, in the sense that it´s time that can be spent doing anything: music, games or in my case trying to do something in English. Anyway, having got to know the children I was lucky enough to be invited to attend regional heats in the Costa Rica schools and colleges science competition. Three students from Mastatal’s elementary school Roy Salazar Garcia, Joseph Zúñiga Rivera and Kattia’s son Ion Beatriz Hernández were taking part.

The first heat took place in La Gloria the 24 July, between the 23 schools and 3 colleges in our district of Chires. Similar events took place in the other 32 districts in the Canton of Puriscal. There were 7 qualifying places to take the winners to the second heat in Puriscal at the end of August. Impressively, the elementary schools and ‘tele-secundarios’ of Mastatal and Zapaton walked away with 4 of those places. Kattia was ecstatic!

There was no time to bask in glory, however. Each stage of this competition gets progressively more demanding because students are expected to demonstrate more knowledge of their chosen topic. In Puriscal, they would exhibit a project poster, a visual demonstration, provide a summarizing leaflet and a written report.

The boy’s project tells the story of chocolate ‘el proceso del chocolate’, its history and its making from pod to the finished cocoa product, illustrated with photos and tasty samples from Chocolate Iguana. Preparations in hand, the entrants from Mastatal and Zapaton crowded into two microbuses early (5.45am!) on Friday 29 August all set for the Puriscal Regional Science Fair 2008. I joined Kattia to cheer the boys on.

The school sports hall was a hive of activity. Each of the 48 schools and 10 colleges that qualified had a table to display its project set around a central space where visitors milled around. On one side of the central space a banner, flowers, head table and microphone located the judges. On the other side chairs and gallery seating accommodated spectators (parents, teachers, friends) come to support the event. Everyone was set up by 9.00am and then came the speeches to get the event started. What surprised me was to see a priest in the line up!  After standing for the national anthem, we all then sat for a sermon and stood again for a prayer. Apparently, the Catholic Church is involved in every aspect of the Costa Rican education system.... kind of makes the mind boggle.

Anyway, after the official opening the judging would take place behind closed doors – only the students taking part would be left to answer the judges’ questions. Ion, Joseph and Roy were nervous, but bearing up well. And competition was stiff, with no distinction between the age of the competitors (from about 7-17 years old). Entries covered a really wide range topics: solar energy, recycled paper, the effects of smoking, dinosaurs, the insects of Costa Rica, natural dyes and pesticides, Aids, photosynthesis – to name but a few. The indigenous school of Zapaton’s project was called ‘you don’t need money to see light’ and showed a traditional method of the Huetar people of making candles using seeds.

Judging was followed by an early lunch and then the exhibition was opened to the public. By 13.30 everyone was crowded into the hall to hear the results. Every student got a certificate and medal for being there. But, there would be nine prizes, 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in three categories for: the best science project; best demonstration; and best treatise. There were only 3 places for the national finals.

The indigenous school in Zapaton won second place in the demonstration category. A twinkling glance from the MC was followed by the announcement that the elementary school of Mastatal had won first place for ‘Monografia’, the best treatise! Roy went first, then Ion and Joseph to shake hands with the judges and to collect their golden pens. Then we all waited with baited breath for the final result: who would go to San Jose?

At this point a flurry of hands sketched the cross in an attempt to curry divine favour; Ion’s hands amongst them. Third place was announced, then second, and then… you guessed it! The boys from Mastatal got first place through to the finals! Involuntary whoops from our corner accompanied the news. Kattia had tears in her eyes. They went up again to receive a second prize and, as the event closed, were swept away by congratulatory backslaps, smiles, complements and photo-calls. They’ll be in this week’s Puriscal newspaper too.

The finals will be in San Jose next month, from 23-25 October. The boys need to take their project yet another step further. Already they and their teacher Umberto Campos Mora have a day set aside to spend at Chocolate Iguana to investigate how you make soap with cocoa. So far they’re on a winning streak, I´m keeping my fingers crossed!

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