Teens tackle Covid-19 issues at the virtual BTYSTE 2021

6 Jan 2021

Image: © Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

While Covid-19 sent the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition online, many student projects focused on pandemic-related effects and solutions.

Covid-19 has been in Ireland for almost a year now and, with continuing restrictions, the 2021 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) looks very different to last year’s event.

Now on a completely virtual platform, the event is free to public visitors from all over the world and features 550 student projects tackling a wide variety of issues.

President Michael D Higgins opened the event today (6 January), praising the student scientists for their curiosity and determination.

“We in Ireland are fortunate to have so many young people in this country who promise to become the problem solvers, critical thinkers and persistent learners of tomorrow,” he said.

One unsurprising theme running through many of this year’s projects is Covid-19. Students from across the country have looked at the societal effects of the pandemic and potential scientific and technological solutions.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the critical importance of science as a vital tool for humanity, both to combat the transmission of coronavirus and to reduce the suffering and tragedy to which it gives rise,” said Higgins.

Examining the elements of our new everyday lives

One project, created by Sarah Ginnitty and Laoise Smith from Coláiste Dán an Rí in Co Cavan, examined which bacteria are most commonly found inside face coverings and hypothesised that this could lead to an increase in acne.

“Students and teachers have to wear masks for six to seven hours a day. From this, we have observed that students and teachers are seeing an increase in spots,” said Ginnitty.

The students sent out a survey to their local community asking about their mask habits, including whether or not respondents wash their face after taking off their mask and if they change their mask or face covering daily.

The students also conducted a practical experiment, asking 20 students to wear a mask for four hours. They then collected the bacteria present on the masks and sent it to a laboratory to grow and examine the bacteria.

“We found a lot of staphylococci, but E coli and coliforms were also present in great amounts,” said Ginnitty.

On the technology side of things, Ronan Lyons of Lanesboro Community College in Longford aimed to design a “traffic light system” with an integrated temperature scanner for use in schools, community pharmacies and other “places where there would be people in and out constantly”.

In a video presentation, Lyons explained a number of prototypes he built using LED bulbs, a thermistor and a timer. “My results show that it is possible to build an integrated temperature scan and stop-go system, which I feel is very important as systems like mine make our new everyday lives a lot more safe,” he said.

In Westmeath, three students from Marist College looked at using mathematical modelling to predict the spread of Covid-19 and in particular the effectiveness of safety precautions such as social distancing and wearing masks.

Conor McCarthy, Edward Cleary and Conor Gill created a SIR model that tracks those susceptible to the virus, those who are infectious and those who have recovered or are immune.

McCarthy, the lead student of the project, said: “We hope to convey how necessary it is for individuals and communities to abide by the safety measures to slow down the effects of the virus.”

Quarantine and misinformation

As the pandemic has had far-reaching knock-on effects on society, a significant number of projects this year focused on these issues.

One project investigated the ‘infodemic’ that rose from the insurmountable misinformation and disinformation that has become widely shared in recent months.

Mairead O Dwyer from Pobalscoil Inbhear Scéine in Kerry wanted to find out if people could tell the difference between real and fake news headlines related to Covid-19.

For her project, O Dwyer created a survey containing eight headlines, half of which were real and half were fake. She also asked which emotion out of a range of six participants felt after reading each headline and asked them if they would share the headline.

“In my results, I found that the average percentage of correctness was 70pc, meaning that people could tell the difference between real and fake Covid-19 headlines,” she said. “Indifference was the most reported emotion in my survey, which could mean that people are becoming desensitised to Covid-19.”

Another project focusing on societal impacts of the pandemic was ‘Quarantots’, from students at Boherbue Comprehensive School in Cork.

Ella Willis and Katelyn Brosnan wanted to spread awareness of behavioural changes in primary school children due to quarantine and social distancing.

Brosnan said they came up with the concept after seeing behavioural changes in children they knew. “When my seven-year-old sister Clodagh went to the playground for the first time since lockdown, she burst into tears and wouldn’t go on the swings unless my mam sanitised them for her first.”

To gather data, the students surveyed parents, teachers and children. “A third of teachers noticed behavioural changes in their students, almost 30pc of parents noticed behavioural changes in their children,” said Willis.

Brosnan added that given the level of negative behavioural changes outline in their project, it’s important that people “don’t turn a blind eye” and work to support children better during the pandemic.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic