Students to show their class at science

A total of 140 Cork projects from 44 schools qualified for the annual BT Young Scientist competition, with a stunning array of projects on everything from using AI to reliably detecting cervical cancer, to microplastics in the food chain and how emojis are affecting our literacy, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
Students to show their class at science
Students (from left) Maria O'Connor, Rebecca Sheehan and Caoimhe Buckley, Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, who are taking part in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition with their project on technostress.Picture Denis Minihane.

ALL eyes will be on the Rebel County this week, following last year’s overall win by a student from Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, at the BT Young Scientist awards.

Simon Meehan, 15, a Transition Year student in the secondary school, won the top prize at the 54th annual BT Young Scientist competition last January for his investigation into the antibiotic properties of the blackberry plant.

It was the latest in a long line of accolades won by Cork students at the prestigious event, over the years.

A cheque for €7,500 for the main prize is up for grabs for this year’s young hopefuls, as well as a chance to represent Ireland at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

But there are lots of other awards to recognise the excellence of students, with runners-up prizes and a total of 72 group and individual awards across the competition’s different categories.

Like last year’s winner, Rebecca Sheehan is a TY student from Coláiste Choilm. The 16-year-old and her classmates, Caoimhe Buckley and Maria O’Connor, have entered the national science competition with their investigation into ‘Technostress’: they used sophisticated monitors borrowed from UCC to investigate whether students and teachers were stressed out when separated from their smartphones.

Rebecca, who comes from Farran, says there’s no pressure to follow up on last year’s Coláiste Choilm win, and that the ‘Technostress’ project was both fun and informative.

The TY students turned to UCC for help with their hi-tech behavioural study, which demonstrated that both male and female students and teachers had increased stress responses when not permitted to answer their mobile phones while completing an activity.

“UCC gave us bluetooth stress-tracking devices that you put your forefinger and thumb on,” says Rebecca.

“They measure your galvanic skin response, so they measure the electricity that’s going through your skin. The more stressed you are, the more sweat you produce and the more electricity flows through your body.”

In the Technostress trials, second year students, TY students and teachers volunteered to do a wordsearch quiz while their phone was visible, but they weren’t permitted to respond as the researchers phoned and texted them as they worked.

“We gave them a stress scale to mark themselves and then we used the tracker to get their resting rate and then they had to take out their phones and put their phones down in front of them,” Rebecca explains.

“When we rang, we were able to see how stressed they got by not being able to answer their phone. Most people’s stress levels did incline a lot.”

In a control test, students were allowed to answer their phones and the researchers were able to see that not being allowed to answer made them more stressed than being permitted to answer their phones.

“We also did a survey, and we were able to correlate some of the data and compare teachers and students, for example: we found that teachers used fewer social media platforms and they were less stressed by not being able to answer their phones, which was really interesting.

Students (from left) Maria O'Connor, Rebecca Sheehan and Caoimhe Buckley, Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, who are taking part in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition with their project on technostress.Picture Denis Minihane.
Students (from left) Maria O'Connor, Rebecca Sheehan and Caoimhe Buckley, Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, who are taking part in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition with their project on technostress.Picture Denis Minihane.

“We also found that girls were worse than boys for the amount of time they spent on their phones and they reported feeling more stressed when they couldn’t use their phones.”

Rebecca and her classmates’ project was inspired by new school rules at Coláiste Choilm that forbid all phone use for students while in the school, even outside of class times.

As well as generating interesting findings, Rebecca, who is interested in a career involving maths or possibly medicine, says the project has been a thought-provoking and at times worrying insight into society’s growing reliance on smartphones.

“Our conclusion is that we have a lot to learn,” she says. “In our survey, most people said they charge their phone straight away if it dies and go on it immediately when it’s charged,” she says.

“You wouldn’t know what to do if your phone died, and that’s a bit worrying. If we’re all too reliant on phones, we won’t be able to use our own cop-on to solve problems.”

Using their cop-on to solve problems doesn’t seem to be a problem for the second-level STEM students of County Cork: 140 Cork projects from 44 schools qualified this year for the event, organisers say. 550 projects from all over the country are on show at the exhibition, across four categories: Technology, Biological and Ecological, Social and Behavioural Sciences and Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences.

From ways to use heavy metal-munching bacteria to reduce toxic contamination of the human food chain by students at Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, to a solar-powered roof that can reduce heating bills by 20%-50% by a student in St Aloysius College in Carrigtwohill, the Cork contributions are as impressive as ever.

For those helicopter parents who just can’t stop themselves, a group from Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown have conducted “an investigation into the possible damage caused by parental input from the sideline in field sports”, while a team at North Monastery Secondary School have been investigating whether echolocation, the sonar navigation technique used by bats, could be used for visually impaired people.

From microplastics in the food chain to how emojis are affecting literacy, many of the projects tackle current issues in society.

Not least Laura O’Sullivan’s individual project inspired by the tragic cervical smear scandal which has impacted the lives of so many women and families.

Laura O'Sullivan, a student at Mount Mercy College, Cork, who is taking part in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.Picture Denis Minihane.
Laura O'Sullivan, a student at Mount Mercy College, Cork, who is taking part in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.Picture Denis Minihane.

The 5th year Mount Mercy College student, who is participating in her third Young Scientist Exhibition this year, has conducted a study to explore if Artificial Intelligence could have a role to play in eliminating false negative test results like the ones that have recently claimed the lives of Irish women.

“When I heard about the scandal, I was so appalled by it and started wondering how it could be avoided and how we could do a better job,” says 17-year-old Laura.

Working with an open data-set of images of both normal and abnormal cervical cells from a hospital in Denmark, Laura used “convolutional neural networks” to teach an AI how to process and read the images and detect the difference between normal cells and abnormalities that could mean the onset of cervical cancer.

She says the results show that AI could be used in future to eliminate human error from cancer screening.

“I got zero false negatives, so I was very happy with that,” Laura says.

“Artificial Intelligence is successful at detecting the differences between normal and abnormal cells and it’s able to reduce false negatives.”

However, the Douglas teen, who wants to pursue a career in a STEM-related field, says human testers will always play a role in testing: “This is the very basics of something that could be used in the future. I think a semi-automated system could be an interesting one to look into; if the algorithms could output probability, then human checkers could go through the ones that the AI flags as uncertain.”

Explaining concepts like hers can be difficult on exhibition day in the RDS, Laura says.

“Some of the projects in areas like biology have lots of samples and models, so it can be a little awkward to demonstrate things like my project. I’ll have posters and the summary of my project and a computer with the code so I can demonstrate how it worked.”

It may be a cliché, but Laura says that when it comes to BT Young Scientist, it really is the taking part that counts.

“It’s a good experience,” she says. “It’s a lot of work, but it really pays off.”

The BT Young Scientist Exhibition runs from today to Saturday, at the RDS in Dublin 4, and is open to the public from tomorrow, January 10, from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Tickets at: https://btyoungscientist.com/ticketing/

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