This year’s BT Young Science and Technology participants devoted themselves to dealing with topical social issues, from mental health to climate change solutions.
Taking place last week in the RDS, 1,100 students from 244 schools across the island from 31 different counties pitched their research, inventions and findings to the judges, the media and the public.
Mental health and climate change dominated project trends this year. The exhibition is now the longest-running science fair of its kind, not only in Ireland but the world and celebrated 20 years of partnership with BT.
One young girl from Ballinamore Community School in Leitrim took a close look at how the decline of rural Ireland is taking a toll on people’s wellbeing.
Molly Prior (16) says she looked close to home for inspiration for her project. “It all started when my local shop and post office closed and straight away I realised that my parents and my neighbours life of going up to the shop four times a week and having a social interaction with the shopkeeper stopped,” she says, telling The Irish Catholic she wondered if their mental health had been directly affected by this.
“They had to travel 10 miles into town to get their needs in a shop with no interaction.”
She used local parish history books and the Leitrim census to gather information first for English essays and business projects about “How employment can be brought to rural Ireland” and then decided to look at the topic in a study.
She emailed Dr Maura Farrell, a lecturer of geography and archaeology in NUI Galway, for help “I also met with Dympna Hayden.. she told me all about how important CAP is for rural farmers and what it means to be involved in the local community.”
Molly was unsure of how to measure wellbeing, “so I looked it up online and I found the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale, it was developed by a panel of experts”. She based her survey on this.
I wanted to develop a carbon electric paint that can heat your home renewably without use of fossil fuels, pumps or boilers”
She promoted the survey through Facebook but the results were skewed toward women and confined to a lower age group. Taking it a step further, she printed them off and her mum sent it out through WhatsApp.
“Then to statistically analyse it I put it into Graph Pad T test,” she said, “I ran through it by gender, rural and urban, post office, community groups and broadband against people’s wellbeing to see how they’re connected”
She found 78% of men self-reported that they had been affected by the change in rural Ireland whereas only 63% of women felt the same, “But when I put their wellbeing scores into an unpaired T test there was no statistical difference”
As for her other findings she said: “People who lived in rural Ireland had a lower wellbeing scores than people living in urban Ireland and people who had a post office and people who were at risk of losing it had a lower wellbeing score than people who did.
“Same with community groups; people who did have it like Fóroige, ICA [Irish Countrywomen’s Association], Men’s Shed, had a higher wellbeing score than people who didn’t, and people with broadband had a higher wellbeing score than people who didn’t.”
Her conclusions show a statistically significant difference between those living in rural Ireland and urban Ireland. “175 post offices have been closed by An Post in areas with under 500 people; so that shows that the Government policy is affecting people’s wellbeing, but their policy to roll out high speed broadband all over Ireland might increase people’s wellbeing,” says Molly.
She’s not the only person looking at social issues like this – William Quinlan (16) from St Joseph’s College in Tipperary has created an impartial method of drawing electoral boundaries.
He says his goal was to overcome the historical problem of gerrymandering, “this is a very common practice, especially in parts of the US where it’s not even illegal and whoever draws the map has power. “I made a scratch project and took a sample of 14 electoral divisions from my local area north Tipperary and I made the code,” he says, explaining how he used a specific ratio of TDs to people to draw lines centred around large towns. He says it would be even more accurate on a larger scale.
Evan Dargan Hayes (16) from St Gerard’s Wicklow has tackled the problem of clean, cheap and efficient heating by creating a wall paint that heats people’s home.
“I wanted to develop a carbon electric paint that can heat your home renewably without use of fossil fuels, pumps or boilers. I first started with making small circuits where electricity could pass through the paint,” he says.
People who lived in rural Ireland had a lower wellbeing scores than people living in urban Ireland”
Evan says it could easily be heated: “We also made a sample for refugee camps or small towns in deprived areas. It’s is a blanket which can be attached to a battery or a solar panel.”
Three girls from St Mary’s Glasnevin, Aoife Scully (16), Aoife Hughes and Rugile Auskalnyte (16) looked at the issue of girls in Ireland having inactive lifestyles by examining whether the 20×20 project is achieving its goal.
They carried out surveys with the public and in school, they say: “We got a sample size of 650 people and we did eight focused interviews with sports people.”
They found that out of the three main aims of the campaign the focus seemed to be on TV and social media which was positive. “Over the past two years women in sport has come up so much more especially on RTÉ and TG4 a lot more women’s games are being broadcast.
“But one of their aims is to increase participation by 20%. They should be really targeting that at 14-, 15-, 16-year olds because that’s the drop off point…we sent out surveys and 55% of the people have never heard of the campaign before and it’s been out for two years now, which is really disappointing to hear.”
They said the campaign focused too much on 21- and 22-year-olds and by then girls have already either opted in or out of being active.
These are only a few out of some of the 550 impressively creative projects looking at everything from climate change, to the dangers of vaping, to sensory aids, to solving antimicrobial resistance.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar opened the event, by saying the topical nature of students’ projects “suggests that change is coming”, and encouraging students “to keep innovating, to keep creating and to keep using your imagination to create a better world”.
The overall winners of the competition were Cormac Harris and Alan O’Sullivan of Coláiste Choilm in Ballinchollig who investigated gender bias in primary schools.