BT Young Scientist: Just how filthy are pedestrian-crossing buttons?

11 Jan 2018

Transition-year student Timothy McGrath from Killorglin Community College, Co Kerry. His project uses CRISPR-Cas9 to help create potable water for developing countries. Image: Connor McKenna

From AI to CRISPR, we learned some truly startling realities on day two of BTYSTE 2018.

It’s the same story every year: Ireland’s best and brightest young students descend on the RDS in Dublin for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) and proceed to astound the attendees, judges and the media in equal measure.

Yesterday (10 January), we heard from just a small number of the projects, ranging from a team that built a new video games system, to one that integrated sensors into a beehive to track its population.

Now, in the second day of judging, the competition is really heating up.

Among the participants is a team from Castleknock Community College in Dublin, which revealed some startling facts about the cleanliness of our pedestrian-crossing buttons.

With Aussie flu wreaking havoc across Ireland, commonly touched items such as pedestrian crossings can become breeding grounds for bacteria, passing on a myriad of illnesses.

The team of Alison Egan, Caoimhe Harrington and Áine Morgan first decided to do the project after they witnessed a man touch a pedestrian button and then proceed to touch his ear, likely spreading bacteria.

By taking swabs from six different crossing buttons across Dublin, they were able to collate their samples and send them off to a lab in University College Dublin. They found that they contained, among others, staphylococcus and diphtheroid bacilli.

The second team of young scientists and third-year students we spoke to included Conor Crowley, Kian Trant and Séamus Knightley from CBS Secondary School in Tralee, Co Kerry.

After seeing how his grandfather’s life had been impacted by being visually impaired, Trant recruited his classmates to undertake a project called BEAP (Blind and Elderly Assistant Project).

With a background in CoderDojo, Trant wanted to harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) seen in devices such as the Amazon Echo, and rework it to create a portable, easy-to-use device featuring a number of different functions to improve quality of life. This includes allowing the user to turn on and off smart plug sockets with voice activation.

BEAP combines both Google Assistant and Alexa in one. It is also very portable, only a little bigger than a smartphone.

CRISPR in action

The third project to catch our eye came from Timothy McGrath of Killorglin Community College in Kerry. He used the much-talked-about genetics technology, CRISPR Cas-9, to genomically edit Paramecium caudatum in order to purify vibrio cholerae-infected water in developing countries.

Having seen first-hand the damage caused by waterborne diseases in Africa, McGrath was able to show how a targeted gene in Paramecium caudatum could be altered to feed off the bacteria that causes cholera.

Coincidentally, this was the second year in a row that spoke to the transition-year student, who last year presented his UltraVision glasses that he developed while studying for his Junior Cert.

The final team we spoke to hailed from Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Blarney, Co Cork, an all-girl group that aims to be counted in the next generation of autonomous car engineers.

Using a simple board computer and various Arduino microcontrollers, Estere Kviese, Katelyn Lane and Hannah O’Shea were able to build and program a basic autonomous car.

While it won’t be taking passengers any time soon, they aim to one day emulate the success of Google’s Waymo, once they are able to gain access to the vast amounts of funding it has at its disposal.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic