Bright sparks showcase their ingenuity

Mags Gargan visits the 50th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition

From the power of muck to the physics of darts, the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition offers an impressively diverse and innovative range of ideas from Ireland’s youth.

Last week saw thousands of people come to Dublin’s RDS to visit hundreds of projects by secondary school children from the 32 counties of the island of Ireland. Reading through the list of projects from this year’s exhibition, numerous examples of quirky designs and original thinking jump out – Moo Boots; protective boots for cows, Ugly food – does it matter? However, there are also inventive and pioneering concepts that you can imagine being made into a reality – Bike Radar; vehicular proximity warning device for bicycles, Zero: an app to reduce food waste in the home, or another app that monitors those undergoing stress, depression or anxiety.

Mobile phone apps, horsemeat, project maths, teenage attitudes and farming were all popular topics this year, perhaps offering a good cross-section of what occupies the mind of young people in Ireland.


A group from Beara Community School in Cork investigated homophobic attitudes in Irish teenagers and found a real lack of understanding of the inappropriateness of some of the words commonly used in their banter.

“As teenagers we are always trying to find our identity and we noticed the amount of homophobic terms that are used in daily life – like in the classroom we hear people referring to things as being gay. The word is used incorrectly,” says Sadhbh Sullivan (15).

Social media

Liam Cosgrove (14) and Niall Brady (14) from St Aidan’s Comprehensive School in Cavan examined the affects of gaming and social networking on school grades. Most students spent an hour on a school evening and 2-3 hours at weekends on gaming and social media. Liam says they found that “video games have the greatest effect on student behaviour whereas social networking was more of a distraction” and “Facebook is more of a distraction than Twitter”.

Jodie Meehan (16), Eimear Brady (16) and Eithne Byrne (15) from Carrigaline Community School in Cork investigated whether Ireland is a pessimistic nation.

“When we came back to school in September we were surrounded by a lot of negativity, like in the media, and parents were complaining about the costs of going back to school and people our age were saying they couldn’t wait to finish school and emigrate. So we wondered has this negativity always been here or is it since the recession, and it is different for different age groups,” says Jodie.

“We found almost 88% in second level wanted to emigrate, but there were positive findings too like 92% of people in third level said they enjoy college life in Ireland. There were more positives than we expected,” says Eimear.

Nation of moaners

“We found that Ireland is not a pessimistic nation, but we are a nation of moaners I’d say. But we have been through much worse and there is an attitude of get on with it. People in our surveys felt we were entitled to a certain sense of pessimism just because of all the hardship we have gone through but we always pull through and still remain a proud nation,” says Eithne.

The projects fall into four categories: Chemical, Physical & Mathematical Science, Biological & Ecological Sciences, Technology and Social & Behavioural Sciences – the latter being the most popular category, showing our interest in human behaviour.

Rory Patterson (15), from Blackrock College in Dublin became fascinated with the question – why do we laugh at others in pain?

“My Dad hates this kind of stuff – TV programmes like You’ve Been Framed and the stuff on YouTube. He asked me ‘How can you watch this? It’s horrible’. I said it’s only a bit of fun but he said you’re laughing at someone in pain – ‘how can you find that amusing?’ I had never thought of it in that way before. It is set up in such a comical fashion that I never thought about how those people are actually hurt and could be gone to hospital afterwards with broken bones and we are laughing at them,” Rory says.

“I got a group of people from a wide variety of nationalities and ages and got them to watch a video of people hurting themselves and then I recorded their reactions and asked them questions afterwards. From this I decided what kind of personality they had and how this is linked to their reaction and I compared my results to existing information from psychologists around the world.”

Rory concluded that there isn’t one reason why we laugh at pain and it is almost unique to every person. “Your personality almost determines whether you laugh or not, for example I saw that shy people don’t laugh as much. But the main reason is our nerves – when we watch these videos it’s almost like ‘better him than me’. And then the tension slips as the video ends and you giggle, even at your own reaction. Another thing is immaturity is a factor. Children are more likely to laugh than an adult. Children are exposed to violent cartoons and they haven’t experienced this kind of pain, so they find it funny. In children the power to laugh overcomes the empathetic side,” he says.

Hannah O’Connor (15) and Aoife Sheehan (16) from Presentation Secondary School in Tralee, Co. Kerry investigated the dangers of household chemicals to young children after reading an article about children mistaking liquid detergent tabs for sweets.

“We surveyed people from our local area and asked them how they stored chemicals and whether they would know what to do in the event of an accident,” Hannah says.

Household chemicals

“We learned that many household chemicals have the same PH as the chemicals in our lab, but in a lab you wear protective clothing and store chemicals in a locked cupboard with colour coding and none of these precautions happen in the home.”

The girls made an information poster using the anagram POISON and the National Poisons Information Centre has agreed to help them to distribute them to hospitals, GP surgeries and medical centres.

Religious link

This is just a small sample of the creative projects that make up the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, which celebrates 50 years in 2014. Like many innovative projects in Ireland it has a religious link in its foundation – being first conceived by two UCD physics researchers in the 1960s – Dr Tony Scott and Rev. Dr Tom Burke, a Carmelite priest.

The two men came across the concept of Science Fairs while conducting research in America and decided that this type of hands-on science was something that Irish students could benefit from, by taking science outside the four walls of the classroom and showing that it is all around.

The first competition was held in 1965 in the Mansion House in Dublin. It attracted 230 entries and the first ever winner, John Monaghan, recently retired as Chief Executive Officer of Avigen, a US Biotech company, and many other entrants and winners have gone on to have distinguished careers throughout the world.

Fr Burke passed away in 2008 and in memory of his contribution to the project a €1,000 bursary is awarded in his name to an individual participant who is deemed by the judges as the best communicator.

Paul Clarke from St Paul’s College, Raheny, was named overall winner of the 50th BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition this year for his project on the study of graph theory – the mathematical theory of the properties and applications of graphs. Cathy Hynes and Eve Casey of Kinsale Community School were named as Best Group winners, for their project ‘A study using statistical methods of people’s attitudes to the ageing workforce of the future’.

However, scanning the hundreds of inventive and original projects and soaking up the buzz and excitement of the students sharing ideas, it is hard to escape two clichés – ‘they are all winners’ and ‘the future is in safe hands’.




Number of projects which made the shortlist from 2,000 applications


Number of visitors to the exhibition


Number of schools taking part, accounting for 1,165 students


Age of youngest winner, Emer Jones from Tralee, Co. Kerry in 2008