Young scientists look to the future and the impact we have on it

A cow looks on as students (from left) Sarah Leahy, Ava Geary, and Mollie Jay Deasy use the phone device they designed for checking slat deterioration, in their BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition project, called SafeSlats.

This year, 1,137 students are exhibiting 550 projects across four categories — Biological and Ecological Sciences; Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences; Social & Behavioural Sciences; and Technology.

The projects for the 55th BTYSTE very much reflect issues of ongoing global concern, with almost 100 qualified projects tackling climate change and environmental issues, doubling last year’s projects in such areas.

For the 11th year running, there are more girls than boys competing and, as usual, we are taking a look at some of the exhibits of interest to farmers.

We begin with the humble tractor.

Are tractors squeezing the life out of your farm, or more specifically, our soil?

Well, you might have never asked yourself that question before. But it’s a very pressing matter (forgive the pun) for forward thinking bright sparks Niamh Hagerty and Eimear Collins, students of Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co Cork.

‘The Impact of Heavy Machinery On Soil and How It Affects Plant Growth,’ is the students’ BT project, and Niamh Hagerty, whose family farm at Ovens, Co Cork, told me all about it.

“During the summer, I was back the farm, and noticed the fields that were used for silage weren’t growing back as quickly as fields used solely for grazing.

“The reason I believed they were growing so slowly was because of all the harvesters, tractors and heavy machinery going over the ground. The grass was essentially stunted, and so that was where we got the idea for our project.

We proposed the theory that the use of machinery is gradually slowing down plant growth and could have a detrimental impact on the soil in the future, in that soil structure could be affected.

“And this would have an impact on farming for future generations.”

“Reducing the size of farm machinery is probably the only thing we could do over the long term to reduce the problem,” Niamh suggests.

She also suggests a reduction in tyre pressure, perhaps the use of more floatation tyres, and twin tyres could also benefit the soil.

A very good project idea for the students of Coláiste Choilm, one that literally came up from the ground.

Alison O’Connell and Aisling O’Connor, 5th year students at Christ King Girls Secondary School, South Douglas Road, Cork with their Allium Sativum: Can it Stop The Rise of The Superbugs 2019 BT Young Scientist & Technology project. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Finding all sorts of micro plastics in the ground and elsewhere is the project undertaken by student Maria Cronin of St Mary’s Secondary School Macroom. Her BT Young Scientist project is called ‘Do Farms in Ireland Contain Micro Plastics?’

The first thing we need to ask is do farmers actually know what micro plastics are?

Maria conducted an online survey of farmers, and discovered that 74% didn’t know what micro plastics were.

While on the subject of surveys, Maria told me she also quizzed farmers on water treatment facilities on farms, and was stunned to discover that 80% of farmers didn’t have one. “This shocked me. I was surprised that there wasn’t more action being taken when there are so much chemicals, fertilisers, and slurries all around the farm.”

But, back to micro plastics (small, barely visible pieces of plastic that enter and pollute the environment).

Maria Cronin’s family run a beef herd on the family farm in Kilmichael, mostly Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle. With her granddad and her uncle, both named Michael Creed (clearly a popular name in that side of the country), Maria shows a pedigree and commercial Blonde cattle at events like the Tullamore Show & FBD National Livestock Show. It’s her interest in cattle welfare that got her thinking about what are they were eating and drinking.

I read online that micro plastic in the ocean is clogging fish brains and interrupting their behaviour. I was thinking about all the plastics that are on our farms, I wondered was it having some effect on cattle.

So Maria began her investigation. She took a water sample from the farm to see if any micro plastics were present. Having come up with a method of filtering the water, she made a startling discovery when she looked at the sample under a microscope.

“I discovered these black, long, string-like particles.

Maria concluded these are micro plastics from the water pipes the water runs through, broken down by the sun and by the water. Using the same process, Maria claims to have found traces of micro plastic in cattle feed, from bags.

Below, science teachers Denise Quilter and Julia White with Aisling O’Connor, Ayushi Mahajan, Nicole Sophie Marinos, and Jane Scanlan, students in Christ King Girls Secondary School , South Douglas Road, Cork, with their 2019 BT Young Scientist projects. Pictures: Denis Minihane, Jim Coughlan

Students James Lynam, Liam Barry and Ruairi O’Brien of Clonakilty Community College had been thinking about entering the BT Young Scientist Competition for some time, but struggled to find the right project, until they spotted an article in a local newspaper about overuse of antibiotics, and felt it could be a good project to investigate.

Through a survey, the students found 95% of farmers used antibiotics on their farms, with 52% believing there is too much antibiotic usage. “The concern is that a lot of farmers are using antibiotics on animals that don’t quite need them.

“Our project is about raising awareness that farmers don’t have to use antibiotics on animals that are not sick,” James Lynam explains.

Timmy Galvin and Adam Straub, students of St Brogan’s College Bandon, may have developed a life-saving device for quad users.

“We both have an interest in machinery and technology, and so as a project for the BT Young Scientist Competition, we were hoping that we could include both,” Adam Straub explains.

“We were always aware of the dangers of using quads, so we thought we might be able to create a safety device for a quad. We developed a device that would send out an emergency SMS message if a quad bike turned over. Contained in the SMS message would be co-ordinates for where the quad is located, and it would direct you on a Google map, showing exactly where the quad bike had turned over.”

Just as you’d expect for scientifically minded and enterprising west Cork students, a prototype of the quad safety device, with built-in siren, will be on show at this week’s BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, which continues to Saturday at the RDS, Dublin

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