Head of BT Young Scientist on what we can expect from a totally online event

24 Sep 2020

From left: Ali Funge, BTYSTE head Mari Cahalane and Clodagh Funge at a launch event for BTYSTE 2021. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

The BT Young Scientist competition is going virtual for the first time, bringing some new challenges and opportunities.

Each year, thousands of students from across the country descend on the RDS in Dublin for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE). But, as you might expect, things will be a little different for 2021.

In July, organisers confirmed that the event will be completely held online from 6 to 8 January 2021 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of a bustling event floor filled with more than 1,000 students showcasing their projects, remote video presentations will be how they get to present to both the public and competition judges.

The online entry process remains the same as previous years, with BT stating that it will be free to all as project entry fees have been waived. Entries are now being accepted on the event’s website and students have been given a deadline of 1 October to get their project ideas submitted for a chance to qualify for the final 550 exhibition places.

Similar to previous events, there will be 200 prizes up for grabs for individuals and groups, with a grand prize of €7,500.

So what will the upcoming event look like and how much of a challenge will it be to organise? Siliconrepublic.com caught up with the head of the BTYSTE, Mari Cahalane, to find out.

What challenges do you foresee in making BTYSTE a totally online event?

This year has been such a challenge to everyone and particularly our young students who have had to change the way they interact with the normal learning ethos and methods.

People have become reliant on technology in a way that they have never had to do before and that is something we are embracing as we look forward to a very different and exciting BTYSTE 2021.

We were really delighted with the reaction we had when we announced that the exhibition would go ahead in January, albeit in a virtual environment. The biggest challenge has been trying to build the same event online.

We want to make sure that anyone who interacts with BTYSTE will get as close an experience as they would from visiting the exhibition in the normal way in person. We have spent a number of months designing how we would interact virtually with the participating students and once we had that figured out, we then moved onto our partners and exhibitors and also our live shows.

The one thing I learned is that no single piece of technology or platform was going to deliver what we wanted, so we had to look at how we would integrate them all together. It’s really exciting to be part of what will be a hugely innovative exhibition.

Will there be any major changes to the judging process?

The main change will be that there will be no in-person face-to-face judging this year. This will all happen online and I know the judges are as keen as we are to make it the best possible experience for the participating students. We will still have three rounds of judging as normal, with the judges interviewing the students about their project virtually.

What benefits to the competition do you foresee by going virtual?

BTYSTE is a brilliant opportunity to develop research and presentation skills that you can take through your school experience and later into your career.

The main benefit of going fully virtual in 2021 will be that we can attract a more global audience. This will allow us to show off the brilliant young minds we interact with from both second level and primary level but also to give a bigger platform to our amazing partners and sponsors.

Will you be expecting similar project numbers as seen in previous years?

It is hard to know what the final level of applications will be. One of the reasons we moved the deadline out was to give schools, teachers and students more time to get used to their new school environment before they had to finalise their project idea.

What advice would you give to students who may never have given a presentation virtually?

I really think that the participating students – our future innovators – will be more at ease giving virtual presentations than we would give them credit for. I think we might learn a lot from how they can stand out in the virtual competition element.

I would suggest that they pitch their presentation to as many people as they can in advance, to their teachers, peers and families and also to practise how to do online interviews with their teachers as well.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic