Science sees benefits of students’ involvement

13 Jan 2004

Ireland’s policymakers are often criticised for being laggards when it comes to technology: broadband and IT in schools are two current examples of where we have followed rather than led. In the science area, however, there is one decision taken 40 years ago which has the word ‘prescient’ stamped all over it: the inauguration of the Young Scientist Exhibition.

The Exhibition was the brainchild of two UCD Physicists, a Carmelite priest, Rev Dr Burke and Dr Tony Scott, who were inspired by the impact of similar competitions in the US in the early 1960s. With science and engineering “knowledge-based” skills now officially recognised as a key plank of Ireland’s economic strategy, this exhibition, which has helped interest a generation of schoolchildren in science and technology, is truly coming of age.

According to the organisers of the Esat BT Young Scientist of the Year 2004, which concluded last Saturday, this year’s show was up there with the best. A total of 471 projects from 1,040 students across 30 counties were on display and some 30,000 visitors attended the event. When the exhibition was first held in 1965, 230 students took part and 5,000 people attended. Moreover, the quality of presented work compares favourably with that of other countries: to date Irish students have taken the top honours 10 times at the European Union Science Contest.

As usual, this year’s projects were divided into four categories – Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences; Technology; Biological & Ecological Sciences; and Social & Behavioural Sciences – and covered an extremely wide range of topics. ‘Are we addicted to chocolate?’ asked the team from St Bridget’s College in Callan, Co Kilkenny; ‘Are sunscreens effective?’ the team from Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim wanted to know. Understanding ‘The Physics of Ballet’ was the challenge that students from Newtown School in Waterford set themselves.

This year’s overall winner was Ronan Larkin, a 16-year-old pupil of Synge Street CBS in Dublin, who took the top prize and a cheque for €3,000 for his maths project on Generalised Continued Fractions, which looked at new techniques for solving difficult mathematical equations.

If there were awards for effort and imagination, there would have been many more prize-winners. David Lynch and Hesham Ali of Castleknock College in Dublin are obviously two rocket scientists in the making. Putting their knowledge of physics and applied maths to good use, they built what they termed an ‘Anti-G Module’ (where G stands for gravity) out of a plastic buoy. They explained that they wanted to find a new way of simulating weightlessness without leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. A full-size Anti-G Module would be dropped from a plane and the occupant would be weightless during the descent, until the latter stages when parachutes brought the vehicle to Earth. Would it interest NASA or the European Space Agency? Lynch said that contact had been made with both agencies. “Well we know the woman at Nasa who’s responsible for all fuel but when we contacted her originally, it was about a week after [the crash of space shuttle] Columbia… so she wasn’t very talkative. But we’re going to try again,” he added with admirable determination.

With their project, ‘The power of the sole’, Dara McCreary, David Brennan and David Perdue from St Paul’s, Raheny set to work on modifying the humble, or these days extremely high-tech, sports shoe. Looking to increase the flexibility of the arch, they cut out a section of sole and inserted three springs to allow a more flexible action. How did it work in practice? “We weren’t able to get hold of any more springs so we weren’t able to test out a pair,” lamented McCreary, who added that he aimed to take his interest further by taking a Sports Science degree when he left school.

With his project ‘phone for power’ Vincent Heffernan of Our Lady’s College, Templemore Co Tipperary, married two of our most relied-upon technologies – electricity and mobile phones – and carried off special awards from Intel and Analog Devices for his trouble. He devised a system that allows users to turn on or off electrical appliances using a phone’s numerical keys. He said he had already received his first commission, from a local quarry owner who wanted an easy way of turning on all the lights and machinery at his plant, but he could foresee many applications such as being able to switch off cookers or immersion heaters left on by accident.

With her project, ‘Music Blockbusters – Breaking the Code’, Seana Keenahan of Loreto College, St Stephens Green, sought to uncover similarities between the compositions of a dozen well known classical music pieces, such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto. Although she was unable to find structural similarities between them all, she found enough to be encouraged: “I’ve have no doubt that there are similarities between famous pieces of music. If you could only find what they are then in theory you would be able to compose great music yourself,” she said optimistically.

If the Young Scientist competition has weaknesses, there are two worth mentioning. One is a stubborn gender imbalance – this year girls outnumbered boys by a ratio of two to one in terms of those exhibiting; a total of 719 girls and 321 boys took part in the show. The second is that – perhaps not surprisingly given the location of the event – there is a significant Dublin bias in terms of the schools taking part. Some 157 projects were accepted from the Capital compared with, for example, 12 from Galway, 10 from Limerick and just two from Kerry. Cork, however, was well represented with 82 participants. One of the things that impressed Dr Tony Scott most about US science fairs way back in the early 1960s was the participation of even the remotest schools. Forty years after its foundation, the same geographical balance cannot unfortunately be said to apply to the Young Scientist Exhibition.

What is not in doubt is the quality of the students’ work. The first winner in 1965 was John Monaghan, who is today chief executive officer of Avigen Inc, a US biotech firm, and many subsequent winners have gone on to enjoy similarly fruitful careers in science and technology. Who knows where this year’s crop of hopefuls will end up 40 years from now.

By Brian Skelly