Young scientists tackle issues close to home at BTYSTE 2020

9 Jan 2020

Leah Shaw shows us her citrus peels project to tackle drought at BTYSTE 2020. Image: Luke Maxwell/

Once again, the BTYSTE projects showcase the issues teenagers care about and the innovative solutions they have to tackle them.

This year’s BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) features 550 projects from secondary school students across the island of Ireland – the max capacity the RDS can manage for this scientific showcase. Every year we see projects from young people tackling the key issues of the day and 2020 has been no exception.

BT Ireland managing director Shay Walsh mentioned this at the opening of the event and again today (Thursday 9 January) at the Future Human Leaders’ Lunch hosted during the exhibition. In particular, he noted the number of projects this year addressing the climate crisis across all categories, from social and behavioural studies examining why some still don’t believe this issue to be true, and biological and ecological research into its very real impacts, to mathematical analysis and technology-based solutions.

One such project from Our Lady’s Bower student Leah Shaw was inspired by the impact she witnessed herself living on a farm. While some enjoyed sunning themselves during the hot summer in 2018, farmers were struggling with parched pastures. There are powders known as super-absorbent polymers (SAPs), which can help increase the water retention capacity of soil and therefore mitigate against periods of drought. However, Shaw explained, “the problem with this is it’s not biodegradable and it’s full of chemicals”.

Her solution was to concoct a recipe for a powder made from citrus peels that could have the same effect on water retention but in a much more environmentally friendly way. She tested her theory with both orange and grapefruit peels and saw positive results in particular with the latter.

Another sustainability-minded project – ‘Eating bugs to save the world’ – was inspired by a segment on Blindboy Boatclub’s podcast. “He was talking about insects and the resource that they could be,” explained Dunshaughlin Community College student Seán O’Hara. “It’s full of protein – sometimes even more than beef or pork or fish.”

O’Hara and his project teammates Kaja Zielinska and Emma Deegan tried out some high-protein insect nutrition for themselves, even making muffins from cricket flour. Unfortunately, they couldn’t bring any tasty critters to the exhibition because of health and safety regulations, but this form of food could be making its way to the dining table soon.

Other students looked at issues in their own school lives, such as Shannon McClenaghan from Lumen Christi College in Derry. Her investigation into whether music can aid focus and concentration found an overwhelming preference for a soundtrack while studying. “I found out that music was actually incredibly beneficial for every single participant who undertook the study,” she said.

This result didn’t surprise her, as she herself has found music a great support in her studies. “I don’t know if I could get through A-levels without music,” she said.

Finally, we spoke to junior cycle students from Dublin’s Coláiste Iosagáin who studied the effect of schoolbags on posture with the help of the PostureZone app.

“We do carry a lot of books and they’re quite heavy as well,” said Isabella Nic Ambróis, dispelling any myths that schoolbags have been entirely digitised.

“On a lot of websites it says that you shouldn’t carry more than 10pc of your body weight, and we decided that we would look into that,” explained Cara Ní Mhóraigh. “We found out that everyone’s posture did get worse with the schoolbag no matter if it was over 10pc or not.”

“People don’t really understand that you will have back problems in the future. We’re just trying to put out awareness,” added Rósanna Ní Artagáin.

It’s just one awareness project amid hundreds at the exhibition, which is a lesson to all adult visitors in how to put science to work for society.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.