From projects tackling the scourge of discarded face masks to investigating the comfort provided by our furry friends in the teeth of the pandemic, it is hardly surprising Covid has provided so much food for thought for the students in this year’s BT Young Scientist competition.
On the second day of the virtual event, youngsters from across Ireland impressed judges with their innovation, creativity and ingenious solutions to the global and everyday issues we face in our lives.
For 13-year-old Agnes Martin from St Joseph’s College in Lucan, Co Dublin, pandemic litterbugs gave her a novel idea to build on.
“On my way back from school I see many masks littered across the ground and I know how many times my parents have to change masks in work as they’re both medical workers,” she said.
She came up with a plan to see whether the discarded face masks could be used in the manufacture of concrete blocks, given plastic can sometimes be incorporated into concrete – which Agnes pointed out is the most widely used man-made material in existence.
Making the blocks was a “fun but messy” process, but her father helped her with the cement mixer while Agnes added the shredded face masks to the concrete mix.
When she had them tested at Trinity College, the results showed that while the overall strength of her face mask blocks was affected, they would still be strong enough to use in the foundation of small walls and sheds.
For transition-year students Mary Ann Fitzgerald and Amy Morrissey, both 16 and from the Patrician Presentation School in Fethard, Co Tipperary, their love for animals proved the ideal basis for their project.
The pair focused on how pets have been helping people to cope during the pandemic.
“Over the pandemic we noted that mental health decreased for many people and we wanted to find out if having a pet had any benefit,” Amy said.
She added there was currently a high demand for dogs, which they thought was down to people using them as a coping mechanism.
They worked with dogs, horses and even a pet turtle in their focus group of 40 people – which included teachers at the local schools, parents and grandparents – to see if being around pets would improve mental health.
“What we found was after they interacted with pets for five minutes, their heart rate and blood pressure decreased,” said Mary Ann.
Their project recommended that even having to provide care to a small pet such as a hamster might do wonders to reduce stress during the pandemic.
A keen programmer since his CoderDojo days at the age of six, Adam Cunningham (16), from Gaelcholáiste an Eachréidh in Athenry, Co Galway, focused on building thousands of lines of code to make his impressive digital journal app for his project, Arc: A Comprehensive Digital Journal.
He believes the app would provide benefits for those with health conditions such as motor disabilities, dementia and anxiety.
“I always wanted to own a journal or diary myself but never liked the disadvantages of a handwritten journal,” he said.
“Say you want to look at the day you went to Tayto Park, you’d struggle to find it.”
He could never find all the tools he wanted in any of the digital journals he found and so he set out to build his own.
“But it might have been my sister who came up with the idea of a star ratings system – and this can also be used by people in hospital or taking medication so you can keep track of the good days and bad days,” said Adam.
Having loved the process of building the app, he now realises he wants to pursue a career in computer programming.