Meet generation ‘science’

17 Jan 2011

In the slipstream of the Hunt Report on college fees and the university landscape, editor John Kennedy draws inspiration from the 47th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, where once again ingenuity shone forth.

It was one of those ‘you had to be there’ things. I stood in the wings as thousands of uniformed school kids drummed their feet and sang themselves hoarse over a two-hour period as they and their colleagues accepted various awards for the effort they put into the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.

I thought I’d seen it all and it’s so easy to draw a blanket around oneself and just give into clichés like ‘jaded’, ‘cynical’ hack. But actually I was truly moved. Dedication isn’t a word you hear very often and as I think back to my school days, ‘dedication’, ‘commitment’ and ‘endeavour’ were usually words you stumbled on in a book. But as each and every one of more than 100 projects involving close to 200 kids out of 500 projects and a total of 3,000 entries trooped up to accept their prizes, it was hard not to be moved and admire their ingenuity, knowledge and pluck.

An old friend prodded me in the ribs and asked me why I was so subdued, well, it’s hard when you think about the challenges these bright and ambitious youngsters must face in a difficult Ireland in the years ahead. They are inheriting a mess they did not cause. And yet we’ll need these youngsters to put things right in the decades ahead.

This was the 47th year of these awards and it seems that in the past decade with every year the projects get braver, more challenging and if anything, more ambitious. The winner this year was 15-year-old Alexander Amini from Castleknock College in Dublin, whose project ‘Tennis sensor data analysis’ provides athletes and sports analysts with real-time performance data. The project could have real-world implications for broadcasters and across a variety of sports, not just tennis.

On the stage after winning the award – and this is what I truly admire – Amini was calm, composed and showed remarkable presence of mind despite cameras flashing all around him and an appearance later that evening on the Late Late Show. Amini will go on to represent Ireland at the 22nd European Union Young Scientist competition taking place in Helsinki in September.

It got me thinking these kids seem a lot more grounded and clued into science and technology than my generation, but then every generation probably thinks the same.

What is truly remarkable in these straightened times is the fact that there was a 35pc surge in entries to the technology category in 2011.

Reaping the whirlwind

I would like to think this generation is reaping the whirlwind in terms of not only the State’s brave investment in science infrastructure over the past decade but also a true realisation that they are global citizens competing with many other connected young people who also want to realise a lucrative and rewarding future through scientific and technological endeavour.

They were the Bebo generation, they were the Facebook generation, they were the Twitter generation. I think really they are the science generation, profiting from a connected world where people like Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have reconnoitred and driven an image of what’s possible.

In this vast world of opportunity, however, the role of graduates is key. Last week’s Hunt Report that analysed the need to reintroduce fees has me worried, however. It was not these kids’ fault that the nation’s coffers were opened to save errant bankers. Yet, just when we have a generation that is truly connected, open to scientific endeavour, we have to go and scupper it by reintroducing fees.

I know there is no avoiding it. I just think it’s a shame. I always wondered what happened to those thousands of youngsters who put their heart and soul into brilliant projects for occasions like the the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. I always wondered what happens to that bravery and lack of fear that seems to get knocked out of us as we grow older.

We as a nation are on the cusp of change. The nation’s science investments so far are integral to vital project wins by IDA Ireland, for example. We need a new generation of entrepreneurs who will devise the industries and products of the future and deliver gainful employment at home and abroad.

I know there may be no alternative but to reintroduce fees – which I have read could burden students with debts of up to €25,000 and then some. But if we do this, it is vital that we be creative in how we structure this. Someone needs to do their homework and come up with a scheme or method by which students who achieve the points and wish to study – regardless of their background or class (if there is such a thing anymore) can do so free from worry.

A 21st-century economy that wishes to thrive from scientific advancement and delivering the technologies and services of the future must first and foremost be a meritocracy.

Enough damage has been done. This will be the generation that will put us back on the road to growth. Therefore, we must never step on their dreams.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years