Solar-powered school bags and climate change solutions: Cork projects for Young Scientists competition

From solar-powered school bags to exploring attitudes to climate change, Cork students have an impressive array of projects in this year’s BT Young Scientists Exhibition, writes Ellie O’Byrne
Solar-powered school bags and climate change solutions: Cork projects for Young Scientists competition
Fifth year student at Rochestown college, Cork Mark Lecane with his solar schoolbag which is his project for the BT Young Sceintist of the Year. Picture Dan Linehan

AS THE 57th year of the BT Young Scientists Exhibition approaches, finalists from 24 schools in County Cork are putting the finishing touches to an impressive array of projects.

There’s no denying Cork’s traditionally strong track record when it comes to winning projects in the annual science fair that attracts more than 50,000 attendees: in the past decade, four of the winning projects have been from Cork and this year, of 550 selected finalist projects, 136 are from Cork.

Although the exhibition is categorised under Technology, Chemical, Physical & Mathematical Sciences and Biological & Ecological Sciences and Social & Behavioural Sciences, social and environmental issues dominate amongst this year’s finalists.

Climate Change: boomers vs snowflakes?

For Caoimhe Byrne and Niamh Hayes, Transition Year students from Christ King Girls’ Secondary School, their own participation in the Fridays for Future Climate Strikes at Cork City Hall led to their project.

They noticed a “battle of the generations” emerging between an old and a young generation when it comes to the issue of climate change, and they decided to find out more, with some surprising results.

It seems that while teens may be talking the talk, it may be the older generation who are walking the walk when it comes to making changes to their behaviour to reduce their carbon footprint.

“We actually found that the attitudes were quite similar in response to most of our questions, but we were surprised that when we asked questions about what people were actually doing, for example, have you reduced your use of plastics, more older people had taken action,”

Caoimhe, aged 16, from Douglas, says: “About 50% of older people had taken actions, and about 45% of younger people.”

Niamh, 16, from Grange, says some of the results from their 640 survey participants surprised them.

“When we went to the climate strikes, it was mostly young people in attendance and very few adults and there’s been a lot of negative attitude in the media about the climate strikes,” Niamh says.

“People have commented that the strikers are just trying to get days off school and that kind of thing.

“But when we asked if there was a negative perception of young people’s involvement in the climate change movement, 55% of young people said yes, but only 40% of the older generation thought that was true.”

Niamh would like to pursue a career in environmental law after her Leaving Cert, while Caoimhe intends to work in sustainable architecture. Both girls feel that their findings demonstrated that it’s time for less talk and more action when it comes to climate change.

“Overall, from our survey, people do seem to have a good level of knowledge, but they need to start taking a bit more action if they can,” Caoimhe says.

“People need to match what they know with how they behave.”

What’s the beef?

For 13-year-old Ella Murphy (pictured), who is from the Macroom area and whose father is a dairy farmer, one of the pressing rural issues of the day inspired her project, in the Social and Behavioural Sciences category.

The recent Mercosur trade deal with South America and the potential impacts on the domestic Irish beef market led to Ella, a second-year student at Bandon Grammar School, surveying over 400 participants for her project, “To beef or not to beef? That is the question.”

“I saw farmers protesting in Bandon and I asked my dad what it was about, because he’s a farmer,” Ella says.

She found that awareness of the Mercosur deal was higher than she had thought, with 50% of her respondents saying they knew about the controversial trade deal that will see the EU accepting 99,000 tonnes of Brazilian beef per year if it goes ahead.

Having built and distributed an online survey and surveyed shoppers in person in Bandon and Macroom, Ella ended up with a good sample group of respondents from a variety of ages, who answered questions on their dietary and shopping habits, and their attitude to Irish beef versus imports.

“Only 5% of the people I surveyed didn’t eat beef,” she says.

“75% of people said they wouldn’t buy South American beef anyway, so I don’t think Irish farmers have too much to worry about.”

Ella’s survey demonstrated that Irish shoppers are keen to buy local, with 50% saying they always checked the country of origin on meat labels and 34% saying they did sometimes. She was surprised to discover that this support is so widespread.

“Only 4% said they thought there’d be some kind of quality or flavour advantage to South American beef,” she says.

“I was surprised by that; I presumed there’d be more people who would be attracted to Brazilian beef if it was cheaper.”

However, Ella points out, if the imported beef is destined for restaurant plates instead of supermarket shelves, country of origin may be harder to determine for concerned consumers.

Ella, who has two younger sisters and who would like to combine work on the family farm with a career as an Irish teacher in the future, concludes that “consumers need a way to be able to tell clearly” in order to make an informed choice if the Mercosur deal is finalised.

Sun solution

When parents tell their teens they need to get out and get a bit more sun, Mark LeCane’s solar-powered schoolbag is probably not what they had in mind.

Mark, a fifth-year student in St Francis Capuchin College in Rochestown, has harnessed the power of the sun for his technology project, which stores energy collected during the walk to school in a battery, which can then be used to charge mobile phones, laptops and other devices on the go.

“I walk to school and I remember one morning I had low battery on my phone and I just came up with the idea,” 16-year-old Mark says.

“The sun powers the solar panels which are connected by a wire to the battery, so basically during the day the solar power will charge up your battery and you can plug in your phone or laptop or iPad. There are different ports to charge from — there’s a round DC port, and a USB and a USBC if you want to charge a Macbook. You turn on the battery and choose the voltage. You can charge away and if you’re not using it, it keeps charging your battery so at night-time you can charge devices too.”

Having designed the bag, Mark had two prototypes made by a company in China; both are fully functional but the second contains safety features such as a fire retardant and water-proof storage pouch for the battery. Now, he’s six months into the 18-month long patenting process and says he hopes to see the bag rolled out to schools in future.

As secondary schools in Ireland begin to update their use of technology and to integrate laptops and tablets into their school equipment, Mark’s tried and tested invention could be a way of ensuring there’s no knock-on environmental impact from the increase in power usage, he says.

“There are studies on the thousands of tonnes of CO2 being produced every year to charge phones,” Mark says.

“You can reduce your carbon footprint by using the solar-powered bag instead of plugging into the wall. And it might even encourage people to walk to school more in the future.”

The BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition runs from January 8 to 11 at the RDS in Dublin. The Primary Science Fair will also take place at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition from January 9 to 11. See

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