YOUNGSTERS from the Rebel County have always been well represented at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition, with nine overall Cork wins in the 54-year history of the annual science fair.
Held in the RDS in Dublin each year, it’s one of the largest displays of innovation, unique ideas and creative thinking from young minds in Europe. This year, more than 50,000 visitors are expected to attend the two-day science extravaganza — 550 projects qualified this year, and 128 of those are from Co Cork.
With projects on everything from how smells and tastes can trigger memory to an app to help vision-impaired people identify allergens in their food, the range of projects from Cork schools is, as usual, very impressive, as is the level of creativity on display.
While there are many categories students can enter, this year there seems a particular emphasis on biological and ecological sciences.
Here are some of the projects being presented by Cork hopefuls, who are competing for an overall top prize of €7,500, and the chance to represent Ireland at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists 2018, which will be held in Ireland in September.
BALLINCOLLIG COMMUNITY SCHOOL
The news that huge, rat-like rodents had been spotted in Cork made waves last May.
A coypu, the South American species that has become a pest in many European countries, was spotted in the the Lee fields and in the Curraheen River, a tributary of the Lee that flows through Ballincollig.
Second Years Emer Conway and Nicola Batt, both aged 14, wanted to investigate the environmental threat posed to their area by the metre-long mammals should a breeding population establish itself.
The first shock for the girls was to discover what prolific breeders the rodents, who live on a diet of water plants and devastate marshland ecosystems, can be.
“We were working on a dispersion model,” Emer says. “We discovered that over three years, there could be 412 offspring from one breeding pair. They become sexually mature in four months, and once they’ve given birth they can become pregnant again by the next day so one pair could have a litter three times a year.”
Enlisting the help of Danny O’Keeffe, from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS), the girls went to seven locations on the Curraheen River to search for signs of their presence.
“We looked for indicators,” Nicola says. “We looked for droppings, fresh trails and burrows. But there wasn’t anything in any location, even though there were plants they would eat.”
This finding ties in with reports from the NWPS that 11 of the rodents had been trapped and killed on the Curraheen.
Nicola is no lover of rodents and says that at first, she was “petrified” by the idea of the giant rat-like creatures, but the process of learning about them made her approach her phobia in a more scientific manner.
However, knowing what a huge amount of damage the rodents can cause, the students were relieved to find that, for now at least, the threat has disappeared.
“They burrow into banks and cause flooding and they also eat crops and compete with native species,” Emer says. “We were surprised to learn the amount of damage they could create.
“But another purpose of our project is to make people aware to keep an eye out for them, so that if they did come back we could keep them under control and stop them doing more damage.”
MOUNT MERCY COLLEGE
For 16-year-old Transition Year students Claudia Kavanagh and Abbey White, both from Bishopstown, it was Claudia’s mother’s green fingers that sowed the seed for their project, which investigates whether Manuka Honey is a useful organic alternative to hormone rooting powder for growing plants from cuttings.
Under the tutelage of their science teacher, Aaron O’Sullivan, the girls decided to explore internet claims that the popular New Zealand honey, said to be laden with health-giving properties, would stimulate root development in cuttings as effectively as standard hormone rooting powders, which are not suitable for an organic garden due to their synthetic origins.
“I looked it up and there were loads of claims, but no research done on it, so I talked to Abbey and we decided to look into it,” Claudia says.
The girls spent a day planting cuttings of both soft-tip and hard wood plants, dividing them between plants treated with rooting powder, plants treated with Manuka honey, and control groups with neither treatment.
As is so often the case, the results were far from clear-cut. The sugars in the Manuka honey caused mould to form around the base of the soft-tip cuttings, damaging the roots, and so overall, the hormone powder performed better. But, Claudia says, “the hardwood cuttings with Manuka Honey grew four times as many buds as hormone rooting powder. It was the high energy from the honey.”
The girls even think they have a solution to the mould problem their cuttings encountered. “We were thinking you could try a one-to-one ratio of Manuka honey and copper sulphate, because that’s a fungicide,” Abbey says. “If you could get rid of the mould, the results might be better.”
Copper sulphate is authorised for use in some circumstances in organic gardens by the Soil Association, so may still meet organic standards.
Both Claudia and Abbey usually prefer chemistry and had a keen interest in biology triggered by their experiment.
“I’ve learned how to research properly, and I’ve realised I actually have a really big interest in biology that I didn’t know I had before,” Abbey says.
“I really enjoyed the teamwork,” Claudia says. “I realised I love working in teams and bouncing ideas off each other and I really enjoyed the project because I would normally be more interested in chemistry too.”
Claudia would ultimately like to pursue a career in Food Science, while Abbey is undecided: she may opt to go into science but also enjoys business subjects.
KINSALE COMMUNITY SCHOOL
Microplastics are another environmental concern that made headlines in the last year and Seán Collins, a second-year student in Kinsale Community School, was inspired to see how much microplastics, particles of plastic less than 5mm across, were affecting beaches in the local area.
Seán’s labour-intensive project saw him visit six popular beaches, including White Strand, Garrylucas and Sandy Cove, each weekend for a month to survey the amount of microplastics on the beaches.
“Living near the coastline, I go to the beaches a lot and I see all these plastics,” says Seán, aged 14. “I wanted to know where they come from, and how they end up there.”
With the help of a UCC PhD student, who showed Seán how to conduct scientific counts on the beaches with a quadrat, a type of grid used in ecological surveys, he collected, weighed and recorded the quantity of plastic he found. The number of plastic particles was alarming to Seán.
“I go to those beaches a lot, and I never noticed them before,” he says. “They really blend in with the sand.”
Sean will display some of the plastics he collected, as well as photographs and the equipment he used, at his display at the RDS. As well as microplastics, he found that on some of the beaches, waste from the fishing industry made up the bulk of the waste — he found discarded rope and netting.
“White Strand and Garrylucas were the worst,” Seán says. “They’re slightly more touristy so there was more littering, and they’re more open to the currents and the sea, where the other beaches are more sheltered.”
The project opened his eyes to the problem of marine plastics: “They’ll be there for years to come. There should be more thorough beach clean-ups because some people are working really hard to take away the big pieces to make things more presentable, but the little pieces have wildlife trying to eat them. They get into the food chain.”
ST MARY’S SECONDARY SCHOOL
MACROOM, report by Hanna O’Donovan
Dogs may be considered ‘man’s best friend’, but for an autistic child, a specially trained assistance dog can also be their support system and greatest comfort.
For this reason, myself and my best friend, Anna O’Leary, decided to do a project on autism assistance dogs.
By doing this, we hope to raise awareness of the work of the dogs and the lack of funding they receive.
Our project is titled ‘Cost Benefit Analysis: Autism Assistance Dogs, Are They Worth It?’ and we compare the cost of the dogs to the benefits they provide to see if they are worth the money it takes to train and maintain them. Of course, we believe they are very worth it!
We had a lot of knowledge about the dogs as Anna’s family have been puppy fosterers for the past five years with the Autism Unit of The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.
They receive the puppies when they are eight weeks old and keep them for a year to 14 months.
During this time, the puppies become familiar with family life and human interaction, when they are taken out in public in their special harness for basic obedience training.
When the puppies are wearing their harness they are entitled to enter any building except Fota Wildlife Park and Dublin Zoo to prevent cross-contamination of diseases.
After 14 months, the puppies are tested to see if they are suitable to become an assistance dog. If they pass, they continue to three months of advanced training.
At 22 months, the dogs graduate as assistance dogs but continue to attend residential classes with their new owner, at the training centre in Cork.
Anna and I began working on the project in mid-September.
We created a survey for parents of children who had an autism assistance dog and gave it to David McCarthy, the Client Engagement and Services Manager of the Autism Unit of the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, to send to the families for us.
We received 60 responses which we were very happy with. Each reply gave us a sense of the benefits the dog brought out in their child. Some of these were that their child’s speech improved, that they were calm in public situations, and that the dog had stopped their child having meltdowns or bolting.
Our project also asked the parents questions about the financial cost of the dog, such as would they have been able to cover the cost of the dog themselves if it had not been covered by the charity.
From the replies, 90% answered no, which proves that the charity is a very important service.
Some 93% of parents considered the dog ‘invaluable’ which means that no matter what the cost of the dog is, the benefits they provide are much greater in their eyes.
Once we did our survey we had to turn all the results into graphs and statistics and analyse them for our report book.
The overall cost of the assistance dogs is €38,000. This includes breeding, microchipping and vaccinations, 12 months puppy raising, six months centre-based training, vet bills, general everyday equipment, puppy jackets, training of volunteers and staff wages.
The Autism Unit of the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind completely covers this cost so the families do not have to pay to be matched with the dog.
The organisation receives 15% government funding but the Autism Unit receives none of this.
This is what we are trying to raise awareness about, as due to lack of funding, the organisation were forced to close their list for applications in 2014 and only reopened it on November 14, 2017. In the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in Dublin this week, we hope to not only achieve in the awards ceremony, but more importantly, to reach a large audience who we can inform of the essential work that assistance dogs provide.
We have already began raising awareness by running a Snapchat account which documents the training of Orchid, Anna’s newest puppy in training.
On this account, we show Orchid’s training and calm behaviour to students from our school and members of our community.
At the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS, we plan to have Orchid with us, wearing her jacket, at our stand on the Friday. We hope this will attract people’s attention so we can explain our project to them and help them gain a greater understanding of what exactly it is that assistance dogs do.
We concluded that the benefits of having an autism assistance dog definitely outweigh the cost of training them.
The personal stories we received from each family were all similar in the fact that when they received their assistance dog, their lives improved significantly as they were able to go out as a family, not have to worry about their child being a flight risk, and feel more relaxed.
The majority of families said they were unable to put a price on the dog as it had improved their life in so many ways.
With this information, we were confidently able to say that Autism Assistance Dogs are definitely worth any cost involved.
The BT Young Scientist and Technologist Exhibition is open for visitors on January 11, from 9.30am to 5.30pm, January 12, from 9.30am to 5pm and January 13, from 9.30am to 5.30pm at the RDS, Dublin.
Tickets are available online at: http://btyoungscientist.com/ticketing/