We must harness the energy of Young Scientists to create brighter future

The RDS Exhibition Hall was bursting at the seams as the annual BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition got under way last week.

We must harness the energy of Young Scientists to create brighter future

The RDS Exhibition Hall was bursting at the seams as the annual BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition got under way last week.

It was easy to spot hordes of young lads charging through the entrance at the Ballsbridge venue, earning glares from one or two of the security staff in the process. The official attendance was given as 45,000. I suspect this was an underestimate.

This event is now an essential part of the calendar. For years, Aer Lingus sponsored the event, which moved over the Croke Park for a while.

Happily, Tony Scott, one of the event’s co-founders, back in 1964, is still with us. He was a recent graduate when he came up with the idea, along with his teacher at Terenure College, the Reverend Tom Burke.

Mr Scott went on to become head of the UCD Physics Department before his role as dean of the UCD Faculty of Science. His research team helped develop the smoke alarm, a runaway commercial success.

The first winner, in 1965, was John Monahan of Newbridge College.

Cork schools have produced more than their fair share of top young scientists.

In 2015, Ian O Sullivan and Eimear Murphy triumphed with a research paper entitled ‘Alcohol consumption: Does the apple fall far from the tree?’.

Over 1,650 projects were submitted for this year’s event by around 3,800 students, and more than 550 projects were selected. The subject of the environment loomed large — this was no surprise, given recent events.

Ruth Poynt and classmate Breffni Carroll are second year students who have been studying the impact of buses on the air quality and have selected a proposed bus corridor running from Rathmines to Rathgar in south Dublin for this purpose.

They have gotten hold of two microcomputers connected to sensors to collect particulate matter.

Elsewhere, I spotted projects on the impact of micro-plastics and the environmental impact of solar energy.

Environmental studies are not new to this event.

The winner in 1977 studied scientific conservation in an estuary in north Dublin, while the top young scientist of 1978 studied the effects of pollution on the ecological balance in the Shannon near Limerick.

Kinsale Community School been on the winning podium a number of times. This year, one of its students, Ellen Crowley, studied plastic litter and the best means of controlling it, having observed the problem on Cork streets.

Fourteen-year-old Ellen spotted her mother emerging from a shop with a coffee in a disposable cup.

Every day, thousands of disposable cups are sent into landfill or are burned. She sought to examine the effectiveness of subsidies in encouraging the re-use of cups by interviewing around 800 people for her project over a three-month period.

One finding that surprised her was that 30% of interviewees would not be influenced by education and promotion to recycle.

She concludes that existing discounts are not sufficient.

The rise of artificial intelligence and its implications for society is also a major issue of the age.

Sara Ryan Purcell, a fifth year student at Scoil Mhuire in Cork, produced a study of child-robot interaction. She sought to understand how children perceive robots.

She interviewed around 350 children from Cork City in two age groups. The younger group, perhaps unsurprisingly, are more inclined to attribute human qualities to robots. Small boys are somewhat more likely to view the robots as living things.

One goal was to ensure that the education of the toddlers is not hindered. Sara believes that the use of technology, including robotics, in the classroom will increase. Her own ambition is to become a primary school teacher.

Her interest in science was stimulated both by her family and her involvement in the Blackrock Castle Observatory as an assistant. Her brother has embarked on a doctorate in theoretical physics at TCD and helped her with advice.

Her father, a trained dairy scientist, works in the pharmaceuticals sector.

At Blackrock Castle, Sara offered to help out in teaching visiting school-children, which led to an eight-week scientific scholars mentorship programme in New York and a three-month research programme at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

History has slipped down the rankings as a choice of subject in the Leaving Cert, so it was heartening to come across an unusual project entitled: ‘Would Cork have been Napoleon’s Waterloo? — A study of the Martello towers in Cork Harbour as a successful defence mechanism’.

The study has been prepared by Eilis O Donoghue and Bebhinn Blanche Howard of Coláiste Mhuire in Crosshaven.

After the French revolution, the British establishment feared a naval assault, and Ireland was seen as a weak link. Fifty two Martello towers were erected across Ireland as part of a system of defensive fortification.

In putting together their conclusions, the pair had to develop considerable mathematical expertise and discovered the importance of relying on primary, as opposed to secondary, sources.

Another Crosshaven pupil, Taylor Moore, gave an account of her research into “the silent killer” Nosema disease and its impact on Cork’s bee population.

I can report that there are plenty of people out there working on new ideas and projects.

We must ensure we are doing enough to not only harness this energy, but also to create the right openings for these impressive talents.

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