THE SPOTLIGHT was firmly on students at the 59th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) recently. Tipperary students Shane O’Connor and Liam Carew, won the overall award, with their project ‘Assessing the impact of second-level education on key aspects of adolescents’ life and development.’
Cork students were also well represented across all four categories - with an impressive 37 awards travelling back to Leeside.
But it wasn’t just the pupils who received accolades. The competition also honoured two impressive Cork women, science teachers Bridget Lehane and Shannen Foley, who were nominated for an Educator of Excellence award.
A WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE
Bridget Lehane, Science teacher at Coláiste Muire in Crosshaven, studied Science in UCC. She completed her PHD in fresh-water ecology before spending years working in research and in Ireland’s fisheries. She brought that wealth of experience into her classroom, inspiring her students to enter the BT Science of the Year Competition every year.
She’s delighted that the judges have included a teacher category.
“It’s nice that BT Young Scientist are recognising the hard work of teachers. You can get tired of being public enemy number one. It’s lovely that in school, students are stopping me to say well done too.
“Anything extra is a challenge when you are teaching to the curriculum. I wouldn’t trade it and I’ll do it again next year because the students enjoy it so much, but it is hard work. “
Ms Lehane explains that the competition greatly boosts her students’ confidence, some students spending their first nights away from home to attend the competition in Dublin, staying in a hotel without their parents. She travelled up with her own students on the 7am train from Cork to Dublin on the Wednesday of the competition week. Parents came up to see their child’s exhibition on Saturday lunchtime.
“They are exposed to so much over the few days. They are presenting work to people with doctorates in their area and they get such useful, encouraging feedback.
“One of our groups was told they should publish their work. The girls looked at otter spraints (faeces) and detected microplastics. A lecturer in Dundalk is going to test their samples to verify their work. It’s amazing. You can’t buy that. It is so wonderful to see them blossom in confidence.
“In 2019, two of our students, Jack Mullen and Rachel Cotter, won the Unge Forskere award, travelling to Copenhagen to the international competition. It was a truly formative experience for them.”
The committed teacher is confident that the competition helps steer students towards the sciences; she calls herself biased but says a science degree offers a wonderful diversity of career paths.
“I also like that we are a mixed school because it means that both boys and girls are offered an equal opportunity to compete. The gender profile of entrants varies from year to year. It’s a great opportunity for them all.
“I was asked at the start of December if I wanted to go forward for the teacher award. I filled out the application and had an interview then with four judges after they’d judged the students. It was quite thorough. They asked a lot about how I motivate my students.”
When asked the same question, Ms Lehane says building the profile of the competition in the school is key. She hangs posters of the competition along with banners naming past participants in the school corridors.
She also says she relies on the students’ self-motivation as a lot of the work happens over lunchtime and after school.
Classroom Based Assessments (CBAs), a relatively new component of the Junior Cycle, often sparks their interest in a topic, which they develop further. They do the vast majority of work independently.
“I can show them how to present their research because that’s my background. I guide them initially but then I let them get on with the work.
“For example, with the project about microplastics this year, I went out with them the first time, to train their eye and help them to identify otters by their musky smell. But once they knew what they were doing they were off.”
Shannen Foley, teaches in St Mary’s in Macroom. She lives in Kerry, travelling to and from Macroom every day. Following her BSc in Zoology in UCC, she pursued the Professional Masters of Education.
She lets her students’ interests guide her when it comes to the national competition. This year four of her groups completed projects in the social and behavioural category.
“We did well this year. One group was awarded the ‘eFlow’ award for the best transport project. They analysed six different scenarios and the most striking one was that if all students within 3km from school and on a bus route got the bus to/from school, emissions would be reduced by 52% in the town. It was our first special award. We also got some projects highly commended which was great.”
Ms Foley also puts a great emphasis on promoting the competition in school. Previous posters and banners from the competition are hung up in the school hallway alongside the two science labs.
The school buses third years up to Dublin every year so they’re primed to enter once they get to transition year.
The extra time in transition year is ideal, she says.
Like Ms Lehane, Ms Foley is struck by just how much her students benefit from the competition experience.
“They just love it up there. A lot of them want to do it again next year. I mean, they were just beaming.
“It’s great for the status of science in the school too and I can confidently say that 99% of our students, all girls, will take at least one science at senior level and a lot will look to continue that study at university.”
Ms Foley believes that the competition gives them a realistic experience of what it’s like to work in the field of science, solving real problems, working from start to finish with a considerable degree of independence.
“Studying science as a subject in school develops critical thinking skills which are important in life. Learning to question the why but also learning to examine the why. Young people learn to look for patterns in their answers to get an explanation.
“Carrying out experiments and following instruction is an important life skill that can carry on over into daily life.
“Science is so broad, and still sometimes doesn’t have all the answers, but it encourages young people to think outside of the box and this competition is fantastic in exposing young people to what science is all about.”
Ms Foley is also delighted with the teacher award.
“It is a lot of work. I’ve guided a lot of students through their projects over the years so it’s nice to get the recognition. It really is a great competition and it’s going from strength to strength in the school.
“We have fewer than 400 students and we had 60 submitting projects this year.
“All students in Transition Year complete projects which they present to their class and then we discuss who would like to go forward. We make the project as inclusive as possible this way.”
Ms Foley enjoys the few days in Dublin where she gets to meet up with old friends and colleagues.
She also loves her job.
“I get on so well with my students. I just love my job and I consider myself very lucky to get to do what I do.”