Bright sparks shine in spotlight at BT Young Scientist awards

Bright sparks shine in spotlight at BT Young Scientist awards

Cork student Harry O’Connor was among the category winners at the 2022 BT Young Scientist awards, for his bi-pedal robot.

IF you want to banish the January blues, I can recommend immersing yourself in the enthusiasm, intelligence and brilliant research of some of Ireland’s teenagers at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition.

Each January the winners provide a lift for the nation, as they feature shocked and beaming in news reports and appear on the front covers of newspapers holding their trophy aloft.

For 56 years, the RDS had been a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Irish teenagers, who have filled the exhibition halls with excited chatter about their science projects.

Hormones and Lynx deodorant perfused the air as firm friendships were founded during three days of competition, displays, demonstrations and entertainment. Covid put paid to all that fun.

Like most things these days, the exhibition went online in 2022 and this year’s winners Aditya Joshi and Aditya Kumar were announced online and presented with the trophy in their classroom in CBS Synge Street in Dublin.

It’s such a shame they don’t get to experience the same fanfare and hullabaloo as previous winners, the atmosphere of a thousand cheering teenagers in the RDS is really something to behold.

If the competition returns to an in-person exhibition for 2023, hopefully the organisers can arrange a belated celebration for Joshi and Kumar, along with last year’s winner, Greg Tarr.

Adapting to the pandemic, the organisers created an excellent online ‘portal’ which worked seamlessly and allows people to ‘visit’ the exhibition. I just registered my details and got to explore the students’ ‘stands’ and watch three minute pitch videos about their projects.

The upside is you don’t have to leave your couch to be inspired by the great ideas and hard work on the display.

The downside is you don’t get to ask questions and explore the topic further with the students.

Over the years of visiting the exhibition and chatting to competing students, I was always so impressed at how well they mastered and understood the complexity of the topics they researched.

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is such a strong example of how well children develop by doing hands-on, autonomous learning on subjects that interest them. With guidance from a dedicated science teacher or mentor, these students can crack problems the world hasn’t begun to think about.

Looking through the various projects by Cork students, it’s clear they are engaged with the major issues facing the world, with environmental and sustainability topics featuring heavily.

Project titles such as ‘An investigation into the potential adoption of anaerobic digestion for energy production on farms in the Duhallow region in Cork’; ‘An investigation into which subgroups within the population of Cork are more susceptible to prolonged illness and premature death due to poor air qQuality; or ‘The evaluation of horse manure as a sustainable alternative to peat compost’ illustrate that these young people are interested and care about the world they live in.

I was also happy to see a future Dragon Den-esque invention like the ‘Automatic Motorized Washing Line Cover’, and I approved of the appliance of science to improve Cork hurling chances with the project ‘To determine the best conditions for a sideline-cut in hurling’!

Pre-Covid, all these students would have made the journey to the RDS in Dublin to present and explain the results of months of hard work, relishing the experience and excitement of having thousands of like-minded teenagers packed into the auditorium for a week of fun and friendship, the memories of which last a lifetime.

Although Cork didn’t scoop the ultimate accolade this time, there were plenty of satisfied students winning top prizes and category awards and being recognised for the months of hard graft that went into their project.

Harry O’Connor, from Cork Educate Together Secondary School, won the Analog Best Project in Technology for his development of a low cost machine learning bi-pedal robot.

Hannah Walsh, from Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, won the RTÉ Best Project in Social & Behavioural Sciences for her project ‘Towards the development of a program of interventions for the reduction of stress among junior doctors’.

A fellow pupil from Coláiste Treasa, Johannah Pigott, won the Teagasc Award for her project that looked at the potential of nematodes - the most numerous multicellular animals on earth - to replace chemical pesticides.

Cork students deservedly won across all categories, and their achievements and interest in science offers great hope that future scientists and engineers are among the latest crop and will find themselves, in time, solving some of our most entrenched problems.

I attended the exhibition many times over the years and presented the BT Young Scientist award to Patrick Collison back in 2005. 

Collison has gone on to become the billionaire owner of Stripe, the global payments company. Clearly a remarkably intelligent and accomplished teenager back in 2005, little did we know the sky high trajectory of his future achievements.

His company now sponsors awards at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and are actively involved in Ireland in developing and nurturing the next generation of software engineers to not just work for Stripe but to go on and create a new billion dollar company of their own.

So who knows what the latest batch of Young Scientist winners and participants will achieve in the coming years - I can’t wait to find out!

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