Kinsale students know the science of winning

LAST week, Kinsale Community College students Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow beat 120 entries from 38 countries to win the 2013 EU Young Scientist of the Year competition.

Kinsale students know the science of winning

The award is worth €7,000 and includes a paid trip to the London International Youth Science Forum.

Today is the deadline for 2014 entries, and Judge, Hickey and Healy-Thow are advising their school peers on submissions.

To qualify for the EU competition, Kinsale Community College won this year’s national young scientist award, their third in seven years, including 2006 and 2009.

In 2006, Judge’s sister, Aisling was the youngest person to win the event.

Today’s deadline represents months of work for the 2014 entrants. Science teacher, Sean Holly is a Young Scientist of the Year co-ordinator at Kinsale Community College. “We tell the students to be thinking over the summer about projects that interest them. There’s no point starting when they come to school in September. It’s too late. It could be something in their locality, something within their interests or hobbies, or anything related to their lives. Then, we meet up again in September and thrash out ideas,” he says.

The school will have 120 entries this year. Themes range from internet bullying to seaweed mouthwash. How has the school been so successful? “Success begets success,” says Fergal McCarthy, who became principal on Sept 1.

The school’s wins in 2006 and 2009 were contagious. “The first winning project had a snowball effect. The kids are interested, the first-years want to get involved, they are in awe, because it’s such big news. And if they enter once, they want to keep entering. The older kids mentor the young, like a family.

“The three girls that won last week, after the RTÉ cameras left the building, were straight in working with the kids that are entering projects this year,” he says.

The school’s early planning shows tangible benefits. While 70% of entries to the Young Scientist competition are knocked out in the first round, Kinsale has reversed those statistics. “The competition gets quite a lot of entries. Our percentage for gaining entry outstrips the national average. While, on average, nationally, 70% of entrants are refused, in Kinsale 70% of the entries go through,” Mr McCarthy says.

The school, an amalgamation of the former Sisters of Mercy Convent and the Vocational School (now Kinsale College of Further Education), opened in 1996.

It has 800 students, thanks to its excellent reputation. The school has planning permission for an extension to accommodate 1,000 students.

Of the 70 teachers, a half-dozen are committed to the competition. Former principal Sean O’Bhríon was in school on Saturday helping students put the final touches to their projects.

“There are various areas of responsibility. But it’s not just science teachers involved. English teachers help give oxygen to the projects and prepare descriptions for entry forms. It’s cross-curricular. Sean (Holly) gives a huge commitment to it, but there’s a big community dimension to the initiative within the school,” Mr McCarthy says.

Kinsale Community College accepts students from 15 primary level feeder schools. The girls arrived in school on Monday morning to three handwritten letters of congratulations from Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn. That followed a meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny last Friday. Their work ethic, the substance of their project, and their extraordinary achievement are inspiring.

“When the news broke that Tuesday night, it was the only good news story of the day. That created a really good vibe in our feeder schools and the school community. It’s fantastic to be uplifted by something so dynamic as what these girls have achieved. Not so long ago, science was seen as a preserve for the boys. That makes these girls really positive role models for girls to look at new horizons.

They have distinctly established themselves as people who don’t recognise any gender difference on what they seek to achieve,” Mr McCarthy says.

“They wanted to solve issues in world hunger — how to achieve more sustainable crop yields on a more efficient basis. That shows a strong social conscience and social benefit to what they have done. We’re very proud of those points, in particular — the glass ceiling they’ve shattered and the social conscience they have brought to bear through their work,” he says.

The girls were treated to a major homecoming celebration on Thursday. The school welcomed them back from Prague and congratulated them on their success.

Their project results proved that two types of diazotroph bacteria produce a statistically significant acceleration in the rate of barley-crop germination — a finding that experts believe might have implications for attempts to address food security worldwide.

Besides the global implications, the local and personal benefits of taking part in the Young Scientist competition are manifold, says Mr Holly.

“The kids learn about how to do research, how to deal with statistics, surveying and chemical trials. It’s a good foundation in scientific practice and it’s great for their CV. Aside from all that, there are the social benefits. They learn how to work as a team, how to promote themselves in front of judges, they foster new friendships. There’s a great adventure aspect to it, going away to competitions and staying in hotels,” he says.

One of the most remarkable transformations is in the students’ confidence and self-esteem.

“They build up great confidence. Because they learn how to sell themselves, their projects, the work. Their self-esteem is built up because they have created something they have confidence in. That’s the biggest change you see,” he says.

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