BTYSTE head Mari Cahalane: ‘Bet on STEM because tomorrow’s jobs haven’t been invented yet’
The head of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Mari Cahalane. Image: BT

BTYSTE head Mari Cahalane: ‘Bet on STEM because tomorrow’s jobs haven’t been invented’

20 Sep 2017

BTYSTE head warns that we must continue to bang the STEM drum if our kids want a future in the working world.

With the deadline for the 2018 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) fast approaching (25 September), the head of the event, Mari Cahalane, is more determined than ever that science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors are embraced by students across Ireland, especially among girls.

Every year, BTYSTE reaches new heights. Every year, more students take part and new standards are set. For example, last year, there were more than 550 projects on show and more than 50,000 people came to check them out.

‘We must remember that many of the jobs that these BTYSTE participants will have do not exist today, so the opportunities are endless’

In 2017, 1,142 students took part and, once more, there were more girls than boys: 602 to 540.

But Cahalane refuses to allow the event to rest on its laurels. There is simply more work that needs to be done.

And she is right. Something happens in the stages between enthusiasm for STEM in second level and the reality of STEM at third level. For example, earlier this year, a BT study showed that four in 10 Irish students perceive science and technology as too difficult, hence why they drop the subjects in favour of others.

This has a knock-on effect on the country, producing too few people qualified for the modern working world.

The key is to encourage more second-level students to study STEM and take part in events such as the BTYSTE. The study found that of those who participated in BTYSTE, 77pc went on to study science and/or technology at third level, compared to just 10pc of those that had not taken part in the event.

The problem runs deeper than simply kids thinking science or maths are hard subjects, especially when it comes to girls taking up STEM. Recent research from Accenture and I Wish exposed the reasons why Ireland continues to be ill-equipped to cater for female graduates in STEM. It found that parents and teachers are still pandering to gender stereotypes and are uninformed about the opportunities that a career in STEM affords.

STEM is the intersection of paths to rewarding careers and regional development

The decision by BT to launch BTYSTE in Limerick rather than Dublin indicates a grasp of the national and regional urgency of embracing STEM.

It was accompanied by a study of STEM students at the University of Limerick, which revealed that 70pc of them are hoping to stay and work in the wider Limerick region.

Read deeper into that outlook and you’ll realise that the people who will uphold the future of this country will not be content with giving way to the economic headwinds or emigration or moving to cities, but would rather build happy, healthy and sustainable lives in the country and regions they love. And careers in STEM will be core to this.

For Cahalane, there is also the reality that many of the jobs that the kids attending BTYSTE will undertake have not even been invented yet.

“Attendance at the BTYSTE has grown year on year, whether it’s the number of people attending the event or the number of young people participating in the exhibition. Young people are showing a greater interest in STEM and, through the BTYSTE, we nurture that interest to hopefully encourage these brilliant young minds that have an interest in STEM and associated subjects to ultimately pursue a career in this area in the future.

“We must remember that many of the jobs that these BTYSTE participants will have do not exist today, so the opportunities are endless. The standard of the projects is really remarkable, with the simplest to the most complex ideas being put forward to the judges for their evaluation to allow the students to participate in the BTYSTE each January.”

She agreed that equipping today’s kids – tomorrow’s workers – with the right skills will mean more people staying locally, spending locally, paying taxes, raising kids and adding to the rich tapestry of life in Ireland.

“Research carried out by BT Ireland with STEM students from the University of Limerick indicated a trend that most students want to stay living and working locally. With this in mind, it is vital that we continue to foster a greater interest in STEM right across the country.

“This will go a long way in ensuring that our towns and cities have the right talents to help them attract the right jobs to their locality. The BT grants allow for an ever-increasing number of students from both rural and urban areas to participate in and benefit from the exhibition. Our accommodation grant also helps to nurture and support the regionalisation of talent and STEM investment across the country.”

When asked how she feels the BTYSTE will evolve in the coming years, Cahalane said that the possibilities are endless.

“The BTYSTE has grown from being a simple science fair to become one of the most highly regarded platforms for encouraging our young people to develop an interest in STEM. Our categories include chemistry, biology, physics, maths and associated subjects as well as social sciences, the environment and ecology, to name just a few.

“No matter what you are interested in – whether it is astronomy, big data, aeronautical engineering or researching socioeconomic trends – it could be worth further exploring your idea and entering BTYSTE ’18. With STEM, the possibilities know no bounds and we want to instil that belief and sense of wonder in the young people who take part in the exhibition.”

I like reading between the lines on things and one of the undertones from BTYSTE ’17 that stuck in my mind was the sense that other countries – notably the UK, which doesn’t have anything equalling the BTYSTE – are intrigued at how a US-style science fair emerged in Ireland over 50 or so years.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Cahalane is certain that a uniquely Irish institution will continue to hold its own globally.

“We should always be encouraging of young people’s interest in STEM and we are delighted to see the model we use for the BTYSTE being replicated in the UK but also further afield in the likes of Kenya and Tanzania.

“We also see the continued success and high standard of Irish entries into the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

“These competitions provide a platform for young people to express their interest in science, technology, engineering and maths, and we should do everything we can to encourage that.”

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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