Kinsale Community School: Leading the science charge

CABINETS jammed with trophies and plaques greet visitors to the school, displaying the talents of the pupils. Just like in any other school across the country, the shelves feature bronze statues of golfers, ribboned medals for basketball, and honours for GAA. There are also Young Enterprise awards and even a framed picture of a student receiving his Meitheal prize from then-President Mary McAleese.

Kinsale Community School: Leading the science charge

But this is no ordinary school.

The first clue to its lofty reputation in a field other than sport, entrepreneurship and community work is a framed poster hanging next to the school office door. It is a poster showing the structure of a molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

Handwritten in black ink is this: “To the staff and students at Kinsale Community School, Cork. James Watson, December 2013.”

Not too many schools can boast such a prize; a personally signed poster from an eminent scientist, one who discovered a truth about life itself and was awarded the ultimate award for it.

But a personal gift from a Nobel prizewinner is only the beginning of the scientific accolades in this school. Across the hall from Dr Watson’s poster is an entire wall dedicated to young scientists.

I didn’t know what to expect that morning when I drove through the rain towards Kinsale. I was on my way to a secondary school that has produced three Young Scientist winners in the past seven competitions. It shares the record for the most victories.

In 2006, Aisling Judge became the youngest winner in the competition’s history at 14 years of age with her project, which developed a kit that could tell when food has gone off. Three years later, John O’Callaghan, aged 14, and Liam McCarthy, aged 13, both the sons of farmers, came up with a simple milk test for dairy farmers to reveal infections in their herd and thus a downgrade in milk during cheese making.

And 12 months ago, Aisling’s sister Ciara, along with Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow landed first prize with their brilliant insight into the germination of food crops.

It was a perfect one-two-three for Kinsale Community School.

I wanted to know what makes this school so special. What is in the water, or in the air, in the world-famous fishing village and tourist haven that creates such curious and insightful minds. Is it nature or nurture? In a video for the BT Young Scientist website, John O’Callaghan and Liam McCarthy gave their opinions on the reasons for the school’s success.

“Kinsale has a big reputation in the Young Scientist competition based on a few things,” says John. “Our students get to see in first year at first-hand what the exhibition is like and they see how fun and sociable it is and that’s a big part of the BT Young Scientist, that’s why a lot of people get involved.”

“I think also the work ethic from the teachers really helps,” says Liam. “Not everyone gets to see the lunchtimes that are given up, totally voluntarily, to be with the students and coach them and give them advice on their projects.”

By the wall covered with framed newspaper cuttings of three Young Scientist wins, I meet Kinsale’s chief coach: science and maths teacher Shaun Holly. The native of Tarbert, Co Kerry, has an obvious love of science and an easygoing rapport with his young charges. Some of the teenagers say hi to him as we make our way down a corridor.

This is the man who joined the staff at Kinsale four years ago and was given the enormous task of taking over as Young Scientist co-ordinator.

“I was in awe because they had two previous winners before I came here, so I’m delighted [Ciara, Emer and Sophie] won it and the European competition — it got the monkey off my back!” he says. “It’s great. I’m the co-ordinator, I like doing it. It’s busy. You’re kept going from September to January, when it eases off. It’s helter-skelter for a lot of months, but we’ve had great success and long may it continue.”

I ask him about his background. Did he submit a project of his own during his secondary school days?

“No, there was no interest in our school in Kerry. I went on to NUI Maynooth and studied physics. I had two choices when I finished my degree. I could have gone into the computer sector but I chose teaching. I’ve probably learned more from the kids than I ever learned in college. It broadens your horizons and you learn more stuff with them through their research and it passes on to you. They educate the teachers too,” he says.

We arrive at a computer room where 30 or so pupils have congregated to work on their Young Scientist projects. Some sit alone, others cluster in groups of up to four.

Computer monitors show spreadsheets filled with data and web pages filled with illustrations of chemical processes. None of the young people in the room bear the look of someone forced to attend a boring class. They chatter and giggle as if they are discussing some extremely exciting extra-curricular activity — which, of course, they are. I notice that the majority of students in the room are female.

“I definitely think it gets more girls involved in science and creates role models from the three girls who won the Young Scientist and the European competitions,” says Shaun.

“We’ve 40 girls entering the competition this year and only seven boys. Usually science is classed as more of a sport for the males but this time the girls are great ambassadors.

“I think we should promote science especially for females. Nearly always the gender balance is towards the girls, which is a good sign that science isn’t perceived as a male-dominated subject.

“Down through the years all the scientists were always male and the females never got a look in. I suppose girls were never encouraged. When free education came into Ireland girls were forced down one route — the home economics side of things — but in the last few years it has opened up big time and definitely in the future we’ll see more Irish women to the fore in Irish science. The girls here are a sign that things are changing. The top scientists are going to be females.”

The 2013 Young Scientists aren’t here today, but I am still among science award winners. Of the seven Kinsale boys entering the competition this year, three of them have already won a prize for their project.

Tadhg McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan, aged 15, and Luke Henderson, aged 14, received an honour from the Road Safety Authority before Christmas for their investigation into tyre pressure.

The boys speak with the same level of interest about their project as any other young teenagers would when discussing music or football.

“We’re all interested in cars and getting our own when we’re older and we wanted to do a project based around road safety,” says Tadhg.

And what did they want to find out?

“We really wanted to find out in the public who checked their tyre pressure regularly,” says Paul.

“We went around with tyre pressure gauges and tested 200 cars. We found only 19% had all four tyres correctly inflated. We tested cars around our estates where we lived and the post office car park, with the permission of all the employees.”

Tadhg adds: “We also handed out surveys to over 320 people and they showed only 40% of people know what their tyre pressure should be or checked their tyre pressure regularly.”

What did the boys make of their findings? “We were shocked by the results,” says Luke. “We were expecting way more people to be correct. We did it twice to make sure our gauges weren’t faulty and we got the same results.”

Paul adds: “We tested all our results to see if they results would be the same.”

These aren’t just young scientists, they ARE scientists.

I meet one who isn’t even a teenager yet. Niamh Cronin is 12, sharing a computer screen with Susan Timmons, 13. They are both part of two-person teams working on different science projects.

“I’m doing a project on the horsemeat scandal, the effects of it and people’s attitudes towards it, and have people changed where they go for their meat,” says Niamh.

She tells me of the stories she has been told about consumers shunning supermarkets and choosing to purchase fresh meat at butcher shops instead. She wants to see if the scientific data corresponds to the anecdotal evidence.

Susan is preparing a project on open water swimming. Nowhere do I see the glazed look of a young mind turned off science because they think it’s ‘too hard’ or ‘too nerdy’. Teachers such as Shaun Holly and famous figures such as Dara Ó Briain are helping to improve the image of science, in the classrooms at least.

Shaun agrees, but highlights the positive feedback of Young Scientist winners: “The likes of Dara Ó Briain and Prof Brian Cox [pictured below] are making science cool, it’s not seen to be as stiff as it was. Dara adds a bit of humour and he’s great.

“There’s a great family atmosphere here in Kinsale, they all help each other. There are two or three students who have entered before and are now in college who will help us out in the hotels, help us chaperone the kids. We say that the success is getting to Dublin and the whole experience of that. A lot of the kids are first years and most of them have never stayed in a hotel on their own before.”

He thinks we still have a way to go to bridge the gap between secondary school science and third-level study. If the country could tap into the deep well of enthusiasm children have for science, then the future could be very bright indeed.

“f you go up to Dublin and see the enthusiasm and the skills that Irish kids have shown, it’s only a case of harnessing that but I think we lose it for some reason. We’re failing to harness that energy, that enthusiasm at third level, the energy is lost somewhere. There’s a lot of talk about the smart economy — the resource of minds is definitely there, but we don’t seem to be tapping into it. It’s one of the things that’s being lost.

“Kids are very savvy now. When I started teaching, science was a no-no, numbers had dropped, in chemistry and physics especially. Everyone was going for engineering, for construction and computers, but now it’s moving back.

“We have huge numbers doing physics, chemistry and biology. We’ve 20-odd in physics, we’ve two chemistry classes and we’ve three biology classes. Kids see that in the recession pharmaceutical industries may be holding their own so that’s why engineering has dropped off a bit.

“Years ago students hadn’t a clue what they were doing but kids today know from the media there’s swings and roundabouts with jobs, but the pharmaceutical industry seems to be a constant, so that’s definitely added to the science subjects in school and in third level. Where once it was always engineering and construction it’s coming back so it’ll keep the science side strong in Ireland.”

The school bell rings and the young scientists in the room pack up their things and leave for another class. I realise why Kinsale has done so well in the Young Scientist and European competitions: it is nurture as well as nature – enthusiastic teachers and parents encouraging minds brimming with curiosity to ask questions about the world around them. I ask Shaun why he thinks that level of curiosity and talent is so high, why students such as his do so well not only at national level, but also internationally.

“The Young Scientist competition is 50 years strong and we’re harnessing that energy. We have the experience of big competition. Seventy-five percent of the entries in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists were by third-level students, so the girls [in 2013] were the youngest by far, but it stands to them being judged, having good scientific process — you can’t just do 10 trials, you have to do 1,000 trials and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine. Great scientific breakthroughs have come about in this way.”

I ask Shaun if he has ever been enticed to leave Kinsale and inspire young minds elsewhere?

“I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I’m living in Ballinhassig. It’s very close, so I’ve no traffic problems. If they’d keep me here, I’d stay,” he smiles.

It may not be scientific, but that’s a fact.

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