Monday 26 February 2018

Young Scientists show that nothing suceeds quite like experimentation and inspiration

Colm O’Neill, chief executive of BT Ireland, with Emer Hickey, Sophie Healy-Thow and Ciara Judge, the Young Scientist winners of 2013
Colm O’Neill, chief executive of BT Ireland, with Emer Hickey, Sophie Healy-Thow and Ciara Judge, the Young Scientist winners of 2013

Priscilla O'Regan

Employees choose employers for many different reasons. Corporate responsibility is one of them. Not only do I want an employer to act responsibly and sustainably, I relish the opportunity to work alongside young people whose ideas have the potential to change how the world operates.

To understand our choice of corporate responsibility partnerships, it's important to understand who we are. We're BT. We're one of the largest communications and IT services companies in the market - and we are not Brown Thomas (to the disappointment of a few people, who over the years who have excitedly answered my calls).

Most people in Ireland will interact with BT on a daily basis, without realising it. A huge amount of voice and internet traffic coming in and out of Ireland is travelling over the BT global network. We're helping to underpin the operations of banks, airlines, high street stores, tech companies, FMCG firms... you name it. We also operate the Emergency Call Service (999/112) on behalf of the State.

We need to secure the best talent out there to deliver for our customers and if we can play a role in fostering that home-grown talent in young people at an early age, great.

In addition, BT's legacy in innovation stretches back to 1846 and more recently it has been the real game-changer for us as a brand as we enter new markets, such as TV sports broadcasting. These are just some of the reasons that we partner with BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition - a relationship that is now in its 16th year.

The exhibition is organised by BT. This means that in the BT office there is a team of people who every day work on the design and delivery on this mammoth initiative and this increases to close to 200 in January. We don't simply hand over a cheque and we don't have 100 agencies involved.

The goal remains the same as it was when the competition was set up over 50 years ago by Dr Tony Scott and the late Fr Tom Burke - to stimulate a passion for critical subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), to take it outside the classroom and to make it fun.

As well as working with the YSE board, a charitable trust, there is also an eco-system of organisations and individuals involved, which I believe is one of the finest examples of how collaboration on a common purpose can yield such impactful results. Together, this wide group has grown the exhibition into one of the longest-running and largest events of its kind in the world.

The first competition - held in 1965 in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin - attracted 230 projects from young people. In 2015, that grew to a record 2,077, with over 50pc of secondary schools in the Republic of Ireland entering a project last year.

Part of what makes the exhibition so special is to see the subjects that the students have chosen to research, investigate and resolve. Very few things escape their curiosity. Whittled down to 550 projects to exhibit at the event each January, it's a breath of air to leave an office environment, go to the RDS and see these students showcase their big idea. Full of optimism, bursting with enthusiasm, no problem that can't be tackled.

We often get asked if we can measure the impact of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. For us, the statistics prove that it is exceeding its goals. It is encouraging thousands of young people to actively involve themselves in STEM. The majority of the overall winners have gone on to study STEM in third-level education.

The media bring it to the top of the national agenda each year through their extensive coverage and 59,000 people walked through the doors of the RDS in January 2015 to learn more about science and technology. It unearths talent that exists in every community on the island of Ireland and their ideas have huge potential.

Examples include Emer Hickey, Sophie Healy-Thow and Ciara Judge, who were listed in TIME magazine's 'most influential teens of 2014' because their project "could play a crucial role in solving the global food crisis".

Richie O'Shea's winning project focused on a low-cost fuel-efficient stove for developing countries. Sisters Kate and Annie Madden's project on creating horse feed for picky eaters has become a promising start-up called Fenuhealth, while Edel Browne's Free Feet project to treat gait freezing in Parkinson's Disease has also been commercialised.

John Monahan, reflecting on his win in the first exhibition in 1965, said: "The exhibition can be a life-changing event and I am very grateful for the start in life it offered me."

The BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition is making its mark internationally. The overall winner represents Ireland at the EU Contest for Young Scientists and Ireland has won more first places than any other country.

We've had delegates from China, Malaysia, Canada, Finland who want to understand its success and it has borne the Young Scientist Tanzania as well as the first BT Young Scientist Business Bootcamp in Abu Dhabi this year.

As a global company, it makes us proud that Ireland stands out for the calibre of our young people and for the organisations and individuals invested in nurturing their talent.

Priscilla O'Regan is head of communications at BT Ireland

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