Ahead of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition this week, ELLIE O’BYRNE talks to Cork students about their projects
FROM pay-by-weight waste disposal to religion, and from sugar consumption habits to agri-science, Cork’s secondary schools are gearing up for the 53rd BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition with projects on just about every topic imaginable.
Cork schools submitted the highest number of entries for the nationwide three-day event at the RDS in Dublin, with 353 submissions sent by hopeful students keen to follow in the footsteps of recent Cork wins like 2015’s team from Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, or Kinsale Community College’s winning project from 2013, the third win for that school.
With 2,091 submissions whittled down to 375 exhibiting projects, the competition is stiff for young hopefuls in four categories: Social and Behavioural Sciences, Biological and Ecological Sciences, Technology and Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences.
Science teacher Karina Lyne, from Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig, has been helping her students to apply for the Young Scientist event for 12 years and teaches science, biology and resource maths.
“The failure rate for entry is huge,” Karina says. “It could be 25% that get in, so we’ve a lot of disappointed faces at the end of that.”
But she says taking part in the event is an extraordinary educational experience for any student with an interest in STEM subjects, from the initial application right the way through to participating in the huge event in the RDS, which is expected to attract over 50,000 people this year.
“Being able to go up and hold their own with professors and doctors up there is brilliant and a massive experience,” she says. “It really stands to them and even looks great on their CV.”
Coláiste Choilm have 31 students participating this year and all of the students have worked very hard on their projects, Karina says: “It is a large extra workload; they might go in to UCC to the labs, work over Christmas, do field work at weekends. The analysis has really increased in the last few years and really they’re expected to do third-level analysis on their data now.”
There are awards handed out in many categories, but the overall winners receive a cash prize of €5,000 and a chance to attend the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, which is held in a different EU country each year. Last year’s BT Young Scientist winners, Maria Louise Fufezan and Diana Bura, from Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan, scooped up the third overall prize at the EU-wide competition in Brussels and were also awarded the DuPont Prize, earning a trip to DuPont’s science and engineering plants in Denmark. Here are some of the Cork projects to feature this year:
THE SECRET LIFE OF TEENS — COLÁISTE CHOILM
Three Transition Year students from Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig are set to reveal some alarming trends in social media usage amongst teens with their timely Social and Behavioural Sciences project, titled ‘The Secret Life of Teens’.
Lily O’Brien, 15, Aisling O’Sullivan, 16, and Edina Scragg, 15, explored the attitudes and habits of their peers when using social media platforms.
“We asked what social media accounts they were on, how much time they estimate they spend on social media, do they know what they’re agreeing to when they accept the terms and conditions, and have they ever sent or received inappropriate images,” Edina says.
The girls say their findings confirm that teens are moving away from older platforms like Facebook and Twitter in favour of sites like Instagram and Snapchat and that, worryingly, teenagers may not fully realise how their privacy is compromised by the terms and conditions of the services they use to connect with friends.
“Most people just clicked ‘agree’ to access the service, but didn’t know that the company has the right to use your photos and messages for their own purposes, for example,” Lily says.
Although the girls are keeping the exact findings of their research under wraps until the exhibition, they said that it reveals some startling trends that may be of particular concern to the parents of younger teens.
“We were surprised by how many twelve and thirteen-year-olds had sent and received inappropriate pictures,” Aisling says.
“We thought it would be more the older people, so that was actually quite worrying or shocking. For their age-group it’s high; it’s more than we would have expected, considering they’re so young.”
Most of the respondents said that they had sent images to a boyfriend or girlfriend, but some had also sent pictures to strangers.
The girls observed best practice to guarantee that they could protect the anonymity of their participants.
“We handed out our survey in school, but when we were collecting it we asked them to drop it in a box so that it would be completely anonymous,” Aisling says.
Answers were painstakingly coded and entered into Excel so that the girls could produce graphics to illustrate their findings.
It’s the first time the girls have entered the BT Young Scientists competition. Lily is from Tower and is interested in veterinary nursing as a career; she plans to take biology and chemistry for Leaving Cert.
Aisling lives in Ballincollig and is interested in business and accounting, and was more drawn to the data analysis aspect of the project, while Edina hails from Ballinhassig and is interested in a career in medicine.
IS YOUR CLASSROOM MAKING YOU SICK — ST ALOYSIUS’ COLLEGE
Twins Ciara and Eimear Lawlor, aged 16, had one burning question that they wanted to answer with their Biological and Ecological Sciences project: is it possible that your classroom is making you sick?
The duo, who come from Leamlara near Midleton and are in Transition Year in St Aloysius’ College in Carrigtwohill, think they’ve found the answer.
The girls’ mother, Niamh Lawlor, who teaches French, German and English in the school, was their main source of inspiration for their project.
“She’s always coming home half joking and saying that she thinks the classroom is making her sick,” Ciara explains, “and another teacher we had in first year used to say the same, so we decided to investigate.”
Using an agar sampling machine provided by Cork environmental monitoring company Glenside Environmental, the girls collected and cultured samples of the airborne bacteria found in classrooms in their school… and proved their mother wrong.
“The machine rotates and there’s a slit that shoots air onto the agar plate,” Eimear says. “We put that machine in different classrooms before, during and after school and discovered bacteria and some fungi.
“We went to UCC to the microbiology lab, and they helped us to identify the bacteria. That was difficult, but we did find out that most likely these were non-pathogenic bacteria, which means they don’t make you sick. We’re still calculating the results, but we’re more than certain that the count isn’t high enough to make you sick either.”
As well as visualisations of their findings, Ciara and Eimear are also going to display the sampling machine they used and demonstrate how it works, as well as exhibiting information on some of the bacteria they were able to identify in their experiment. Both girls have a keen interest in the sciences and hope to pursue careers in the STEM subjects.
“I really like chemistry, but I really like physics and biology too,” Ciara says, “so I’ll definitely take at least two science subjects for Leaving Cert.”
It’s the first year that they will attend the competition and in honour of their participation, the TY students of St Aloysius’ College will go on a class outing to the event.
“We’re really excited,” Eimear says. “We were very happy when we found out we’d got through. The standard is really high, so I’m not sure about winning, but I hope we’ll do well.”
SCHOOL SICK DAYS — COLÁISTE AN SPIORAID NAOIMH BISHOPSTOWN
A group of sixth years from Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown have used mathematical modelling to calculate how many students should take sick days to stop the common cold from spreading in a school.
“We wanted to see how many sick people you need to remove to stop the disease and make it die out,” Conor McKeown, aged 17, says.
Conor and his fellow Chemistry and Physics classmates Nathaniel Grant, and Dylan Morley, both aged 18, used epidemiological concepts from the 1900s and Python Code, as well as surveys of their schoolmates’ experiences with doses of the sniffles for their Physical and Mathematical Sciences project.
“You first calculate the number of people being infected each day,” Conor explains. “You have people who stay in school and recover, and then there are people who come back to school after they’ve recovered and are at risk again. But basically all we really needed to know was the infection rate; you’ve a 50/50 chance of being infected when you’re around someone who is contagious.”
As with so many scientific experiments, sometimes the boys had to go back to the drawing board when they discovered inaccuracies in their data.
Surveys they conducted in May yielded accurate data. “We did another survey in October when a cold was going around,” Dylan says. “but also, we had problems with the first survey because we let people fill in their own answers instead of giving them multiple choice options, and the results were very confusing.
“Our conclusion shows that the optimum value of students to send home is 33.3%; then the cold will die out naturally,” Nathaniel says. “If you increase the number of people you send home, it will die out faster, but then people will miss too many days of school.”
As yet, the team are unsure if their research will lead to any practical applications.
“We have a model that could be used for an app,” Nathaniel says.
“You could input numbers, but there are too many variables for it to be used for other diseases.”
Teacher Tim Kerins, who has taught physics, maths and applied maths at Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh for a year and a half, says that he has no doubt that the team will represent their findings well at the Young Scientist exhibition.
“With maths-based projects, you don’t have a physical thing at the end of it and it’s about the ideas,” he says.
“But the guys are very good at presenting those ideas. It’s about the science, and the projects speak for themselves.”
Tim says that the standard of work on display at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition is astonishingly high.
“When you think of the ages of the people involved, it’s spectacular really. Some of it is genuinely of a really high quality.”
So how will he feel when a third of his students start absenting themselves from class on the basis of the team’s findings?
He smiles. “I’ll be happy they’ll be getting better faster.”
The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is in the RDS, Dublin 4 this week, from Thursday, January 12 to Saturday, January 14. Tickets: student €7/adult €12 / family pass €25. For more information see http://btyoungscientist.com/