Young scientists exhibit an interest in religion

Mags Gargan finds a number of projects at this year’s BT Young Scientist Exhibition which examine faith issues

This year marks 51 years of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, making it one of the longest standing events of its kind in the world.

2015 also saw the competition break all previous records for the number of projects entered and the number of students participating.

A total of 2,077 entries were received from 4,616 students from 367 schools from across the island of Ireland. From these entries, 550 projects qualified for the exhibition which saw over 50,000 people visiting Dublin’s RDS last week.

Walking through the main exhibition hall, numerous examples of creative design and original thinking caught the visitor’s eye. Geographical voting patterns in the Eurovision song contest, using Twitter to determine the happiest county, the science behind the ice bucket challenge, the physics of conkers, a mathematical analysis of patterns in winning Lotto draws and a sheep collar which can alert farmers to a predator attack, were just some of the more quirky ideas.

Emily Duffy from Desmond College in Limerick came up with the resourceful idea of the ‘homeless wrap’ – a lightweight, waterproof, heat retaining portable cover which could keep homeless people sleeping on the streets dry and warm.

Ebola, e-cigarettes, online safety, water charges and time saving apps all featured strongly this year. A number of projects also showed an interest in religion and faith issues.

A group from Pobalscoil na Tríonóide in Cork investigated teenage suicide in Ireland and the impact of Donal Walsh’s story on teenagers – particularly on their faith and the emotions that his story evoked.

Jack Hayes, Josh O’Brien and Caitlin O’Brien from Coláiste Iósaef in Limerick surveyed teenagers to find out social views towards organised religion and how it affects modern society. They discovered that most people could not decide whether religion had a positive or negative impact on the world. Caitlin, who is an atheist, said that the project made her more “open-minded towards religion” and the positive role faith can play in people’s lives.

Michael Dolan, Nathan Donelan and Tomás McKenna-Carroll from Garbally College in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway completed a statistical analysis of the rural/urban divide in Ballinsaloe in relation to politics and religion.

“We undertook a survey of 820 people, 410 from the town of Ballinasloe and 410 from the rural area. Then we compared the results,” Michael explained.

“We found that 1% of urban people are part of an organised religion, as opposed to 95% of rural people. Also 10% of urban people identify as non-religious, as opposed to only 1% of rural people. We found that rural areas are more traditional and maybe less likely to move away from the religion they were brought up with,” he said.

“If you break it down people who became non-religious were generally unhappy with organised religion, possibly because of the sex abuse scandals that came to light in recent years. This would have alienated people in urban areas, but didn’t seem to have had that much of an effect in the rural area. There is, I suppose, a stronger history and heritage of devotion there, and maybe they were able to move past these organisational issues and back to doctrine.”

Conor Farrell from St Eunan’s College in Donegal completed an investigation into bacterial counts of holy water in church fonts, which was highly commended by the judges. An altar server in his local parish, Conor was struck by how many people put their hands in the holy water font before and after Mass. He got permission to take samples from the parish fonts and used the lab in Letterkenny Institute of Technology to analyse the water. He found very high levels of bacteria, including E coli, in each sample. He then searched for a method of reducing the bacteria levels and found that the introduction of a small amount of bleach in the water was very effective. “The bleach has been introduced in my parish and I have written to the diocesan secretary to suggest that it be adopted diocese-wide,” Conor said.

Ciara Meleady and Tara Diver from Loreto Convent in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal said that it was their own strong sense of faith that inspired their project ‘Does faith matter to young people?’

“The purpose of our work was to discover whether or not faith plays a part in the lives of 14-16 year olds in our community today,” Ciara said.

They discussed their project with their religion teacher and their parish priest Fr Eamonn McLoughlin, and decided to compile a questionnaire. They found that 95% of those surveyed were members of an organised religion and 77% attended their place of worship regularly.

Religion was viewed as important in their lives by 60% and 63% said that they prayed. Of those who prayed 85% did so at times of intense stress, such as exams. The girls also found that 66% of those surveyed thought that some aspects of their faith made them feel happy.

“We also found that girls prayed more often than boys and that more girls felt that religion was important in their lives. But both genders agreed that it was in times of personal stress that they prayed more often,” Ciara says.

From their findings the girls are recommending that religious instruction should remain within the education system and Tara says they would like to see more chaplains in secondary schools to provide guidance and help young people understand their faith.

Some of the former winners of the Young Scientist competition have gone on to achieve great success on an international level. Last year’s winner, Paul Clarke, won second prize at the EU Young Scientist competition in Warsaw with his project, ‘Contributions to Cyclic Graph Theory’. The winners in 2013 – Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy Thow and Emer Hickey – scooped first prize at the international Google Science Fair in California with their project on boosting the germination of high-value crops. They were also honoured in TIME magazine’s list of 25 most influential teenagers in the world.

Overall winners

The overall winners of the competition this year were Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy of Coláiste Treasa in Cork. Their project looked at whether parental alcohol consumption had an impact on the drinking habits of their teenage children. The judges said the research could help shape family alcohol behaviour in a very positive way in the future.

The exhibition was first conceived by two UCD physics researchers in the 1960s – Dr Tony Scott and Rev. Dr Tom Burke, a Carmelite priest.

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 to help them in their further education.

This year the bursary went to Shiofra Ryan from St Brendan’s Community School in Co. Leitrim for her presentation on a project about the design of a boot offering support to hurling and camogie players.

However, this is just a brief overview of the creative projects that make up the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, which over the last 51 years has become a real testament to the breadth of young talent that we have on this small island.


Facts & Figures

  • 13

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

  • 550

Number of projects which made the shortlist in 2015 from 2,077 applications.

  • 1965

The first year of the competition, which saw John Monahan from Newbridge, Co. Kildare take first prize. He went on to become president of his own biotech company in California.

  • $5million

Estimated amount for which Patrick Collison, 2005 winner from Limerick, and his brother John sold their company Auctomatic in 2008.