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Author: C. Wilson
Source: ABC
Date: 20th Apr 2015

Getting teenagers excited about gardening is no easy feat, but a competition combining science and sunflowers has hundreds of students from across the country honing their green thumbs.

The annual Sunflower Competition run by the University of Queensland (UQ) in Gatton has challenged students to grow the largest, heaviest and prettiest sunflowers.

“We’ve done it as a school project,” Year 10 Downlands College student Jasmine Lamborn said.

“We’ve all had a sunflower and we’ve all had to change a particular variable and report on it.”

Eighty-four schools participated in the 2015 competition, with more than 3,000 students getting involved.

“I’ve learnt patience is the key, to water the sunflower often and don’t get on my teacher’s bad side,” St Edmunds College student Michael Richards said.

The aim of the competition was to expose students to the importance of scientific knowledge, and the diverse science-based careers available to young people in agriculture industries.

“For many of these kids it’s the first time they’ve actually grown a plant,” said Associate Professor Vic Galea, plant pathologist from UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences.

“So to be engaged in this way and then have the opportunity to compete, really does motivate.

“They look at issues such as crop nutrition, the media that they grow their sunflowers in, also exposure to sunlight, temperature, etcetera. So it’s all about the fun and the science of growing plants.”

The fact that sunflowers grow at a similar rate to many teenagers also helped to keep students interested.

“They went from being a pile of dirt to about a metre and a half in height in the space of two months,” Year 11 St Edmunds College student Hudson Heycott said.

Downlands College took out two major titles this year, winning the tallest sunflower category with an impressive 2.69-metre specimen, as well as the heaviest, weighing in at 3.54 kilograms.

“Yeah, they grew pretty quick,” Jasmine said. “They shot up pretty quick over the school holidays.”

Although the tallest certainly stood out from the crowd, experts were keen to stress that there was more to sunflowers than height.

“The tall sunflowers are really magnificent,” Dr Galea said.

“There are other shorties as well which are really quite well grown, and more often than not the short ones usually have the biggest heads.”

It is hoped the hands-on experience might help to grow interest in agriculture as a career, particularly given the high demand for tertiary trained workers in the sector.

“We hope that they’ll be engaged in the idea that behind growing plants, there’s actually a lot of science and that solving problems in agriculture is really quite a noble thing,” Dr Galea said.

“We’d like to send the message out there that anyone interested in science can get involved in agriculture.”

Read the article at the ABC