Sunday 23 October 2016

Young scientists apply their knowledge

We hear from the students who are entering BT's Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 23/09/2015 | 02:30

Great outdoors: Aoife Dowling (right) uses a digital calipers to measure the flowers of a hare bell plant while Chloe Geraghty takes notes. Photograph: John Kelly.
Great outdoors: Aoife Dowling (right) uses a digital calipers to measure the flowers of a hare bell plant while Chloe Geraghty takes notes. Photograph: John Kelly.
Meadhbh McGrath

Students across the country are putting the finishing touches to their proposals for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), ahead of next Tuesday's deadline.

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With projects covering topics as diverse as microplastics, river conservation, tourism and body-image perception, this year's exhibition promises to be bigger and more exciting than ever.

The first Young Scientist exhibition was held in the Mansion House, Dublin in 1965, when 230 students participated. By 2015, that number had risen to 1,185 students from 206 schools, making it one of the largest and longest-standing science exhibitions in the world.

This will be its 52nd year, and the 27th for teacher John Sims of Mary Immaculate Secondary School, Co Clare. He has been mentoring students from second through sixth year as they prepare to submit 17 entries to this year's competition.

"My philosophy is that science is all around you. You don't need to have extraordinary equipment to do a lot of the Young Scientist projects. We're a very small school with only 230 students, so a lot of the work is done in the field," he says.

Two of his students, Chloe Geraghty (14) and Aoife Dowling (13) are comparing the height of harebell plants across five sites in the Burren, Co Clare and Roundstone, Co Galway, to see if location affects its growth.

They had the idea after seeing the flowers on a trip to Roundstone. "We were interested in the competition because others had said it was really good and we like science so we said we'd try it out. It's been really enjoyable so far," says Aoife.

The best projects, according to Mr Sims, are those that the students are excited about working on: "That's the most important thing, that they have an interest in it and that it touches their lives in some way.

"The exhibition gives students great confidence, and it's something extra to the syllabus. Things go wrong, so it's good for problem-solving as well - if one method didn't work, how are you going to change that? They often come up with great answers, even better than I could!"

Mari Cahalane is the head of the exhibition, and agrees that the key to a good project is choosing a topic that is relevant to the students' lives.

She encourages students to apply to the competition for an opportunity to learn in a different way: "It gets them outside of the four walls of a classroom, and I think that's really important."

Students can submit projects individually or in groups, and there are four categories: Chemical, Physical, and Mathematical Science, Biological and Ecological Sciences, Technology, and Social and Behavioural Sciences.

Professor Pat Guiry from UCD's School of Chemistry is head judge for the Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences category. He says: "What we'd like students to do for the proposals is to have thought about an idea. Ultimately, science is about trying to come up with a good idea, then investigating it and doing experiments to see what kind of implications it might have.

"It's the same judging process in January. We look at how good the idea was, how well they've investigated it, and how well they understand what they've done."

In 2015, for the first year ever, there were more project entries from Cork (115) than from Dublin (104). Winners, Ian O'Sullivan and Eimear Murphy (both 17), are pupils at Scoil Treasa, Kanturk, Co Cork. Their project on the influence of parental alcohol consumptions on their adolescent children's drinking habits was the school's only submission to the competition. This year, Scoil Treasa students are submitting nine entries.

Science teacher Derry O'Donovan says the win boosted confidence and enthusiasm in the school, and has encouraged more students to enter.

"It's an excellent opportunity for pupils to gain an insight into the world of research. They learn how to develop a project from initial thoughts to final presentation, and garner skills that will benefit them throughout their future careers.

"Most importantly, the students get to have fun with science. Their projects are not defined by the curriculum but rather by their own interests. They learn through enjoyment rather than the pressure of exams. That's real learning driven by the student for the student."

Transition year students Darragh O'Keeffe (16) and Riona Sheahan (16) are studying the conservation of endangered pearl mussels in the River Allow, Co Cork.

"Ecology and conservation really interest me. The river is part of our heritage, and a lot of people around here don't actually know what's in our rivers, so hopefully we can raise a bit of awareness," says Darragh.

Darragh and Riona decided to enter after attending the 2015 exhibition and seeing their friends awarded the top prize.

On Monday, at the EU Contest for Young Scientists, Ian and Eimear won the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) prize and will travel to the USA for the world's largest pre-college science competition next May.

Meanwhile, another Cork student, Mark O'Dowd, Glanmire Community College, was one of three first prizwinneers at the Food Expo 'Feeding the planet. Energy for life' competition, which ran alongside the EU contest.

Mark picked up a special award at the BTYSTE in January with his project, 'Injury increasing crop yields', and was one of 18 projects taking part in the Food Expo.

Young Scientist  - some  milestones

• The first winner was John Monahan, Newbridge, Co Kildare, in 1965. He went on to become President of his own biotech company, Avigen Inc, based in California.

• The youngest winner was Emer Jones (13), Tralee, Co Kerry, in 2008, for her research on emergency sandbag shelters.

• Sarah Flannery, Blarney, Co Cork, was awarded the 1999 title for her project on encryption, and she represented the EU at the Nobel Prize ceremonies, later co-founding video game company TirNua.

• After winning for his project on artificial intelligence in 2005, Patrick Collison, Co Limerick, became the exhibition's first millionaire entrepreneur.

• Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, 2013 winners, were named in Time magazine's list of the '25 Most Influential Teens of 2014'.

Irish Independent

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