A New Year brings a new instalment of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) to the RDS for its 52nd year running. This year was the biggest yet and in total a staggering 59,000 people visited the exhibition. The competition was rife, with over 2077 project applications made from students all over the country from which 1174 of these projects were accepted to present at the fair.
The exhibition is a fantastic platform for secondary school students, an opportunity to perform some independent and original research on a scientific field of interest. The range of categories on offer spanned across all the fields of science. There were 857 entries in the social and behavioural sciences category, 539 in the biological and ecological sciences, 338 in the technology category and 314 in the chemical, physical and mathematical sciences category. Projects explored topics such as ways to measure the viscosity of fluids, the effects of electronic devices on our sleep, research into oesophageal cancer and apps for an automated courier delivery service. With the vast variety of topics on offer every visitor was bound to find something that sparked their imagination.
This year’s winners were Maria Louise Fufezan and Diana Bura of the Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan. Their project was titled “An Investigation into the Effects of Enzymes used in Animal Feed additives of the Lifespan of Caenorhabditis Elegans.” To decipher what that means, the victorious pair looked into the effects of animal feed on the soil’s fertility. Their findings were that animal feed that is actually intended to enhance animal growth in fact has the effect of harming many of the small nematodes (roundworms) in the soil. The nematodes play a crucial role in the soils fertility and the girls were able to scientifically prove the detrimental effects the food additives had on the worm’s ability to search and find food, and thus lifespan.
Alongside the BT Young Scientist ran a parallel version specifically for primary schools, called the “RDS Primary Science fair”. Primary schools are able to acquire stands for 4th-6th class groups to exhibit projects. This annually expanding younger sibling to the BTYSTE may just be the catalyst of inspiration many of the very young visitors need in order to engage with the exhibition, if some of the senior school projects seem too advanced for them.
The BT Young Scientist is certainly closer to the missing link between STEM courses in college and their corresponding subjects in the leaving cert curriculum. The treatment at the secondary school level follows a well-travelled path walled on either side, not allowing for much deviation from a well-defined syllabus. However upon reaching college a lot of STEM students are expected to perform some independent research for a poster project or thesis on a topic they’ve never covered. So while the leaving cert curriculum is devoid of deeper exploration into subjects, perhaps the BTYSTE is filling a gap between second and third level education with how it prioritises research.
Invariably all contestants share the same insatiable desire to learn, discover and solve. They possess a certain level of tenacity to solve problems they meet. For example, the inspiration for this year’s winners was that Diana noticed that the chickens on her grandmother farm were significantly smaller than commercial birds and wanted to find the scientific reason behind this. Similarly, Shane Curran, the winner of the best individual award got the idea for his automated courier delivery app when he was trying to deliver a parcel and was stuck between delivering it himself or sending it in a taxi. His solution, was to develop an app which could run an automated courier service. Often it is an elegant solution to a simple problem.
There is a myriad of great projects that have laid claim to the title in the past. A few particularly stand out. “The Mathematics of Monopoly” by Raphael Hurley who won in 1998, which even earned him a trip to the Hasbro manufacturing plant to see the game made. In 2008, Emer Jones won with the project entitled “Research and development of emergency sandbag shelters”. She designed a sandbag shelter to be used in emergency response to natural disasters that required significantly less barbed wire than all previous versions. In fact, she even offered her design to Trocaire’s emergency response team.
Turning the clock back to 1986, Niamh Mulvany and Breda Maguire came out on top with “Focus on the Viola Tricolour – an In-depth study on Bull Island”. Both went on to study in Trinity College for their undergraduate degrees specialising in Botany. Their project was a huge success going on to take the top honour in the Philips European competition for Young Scientists and Inventors in Oslo.
The final winner we’ll look at is Luke Drury with his project “Construction and use of a spectro-photometer to investigate complex ion formation in a transitional metal” that won in 1969. He has since gone down an amazing route of academia, obtaining a B.A. in Experimental Physics and Pure Mathematics from Trinity College Dublin, then a PhD in Astrophysics in Cambridge University and later became a professor and a researcher. He is the former President of the Royal Irish Academy, present school director of astronomy and astrophysics at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and the current holder of the Andrews Professorship of Astronomy at the School of Mathematics in Trinity College Dublin. In fact, just last week on the 21st January, Prof. Drury gave a fantastic talk to DU Physics Society, outlining the Science Programme of the European Space Agency’s working group of which he is the chair.
Every year the BT Young Scientist never fails to amaze me with the calibre of its entries, the standard within Ireland is truly world-class. The managing director of BT, the events main sponsor, goes so far as to say “The talent of our young Irish students is surpassed by none, and the commercial success of some of our past winners proves this event is a real stepping stone for the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.” Here’s to the young scientists who constantly manage to bring out the amazing and awe-inspiring science in everything. From a seemingly mundane cooking stove to the more abstract field of cyclic graph theory, they try to explain it all. Let’s hope this fantastic exhibition continues to grow and inspire, because anyone who enters and presents their work at the exhibition, can consider themselves winners.
Illustration by Mubashir Sultan.