Wonder kids: Make way for the science generation

12 Nov 2018

The nine members of the Science Apprentice Wonder Panel, from left: Abhinav Sathiaseelan, Anoushka Sathiaseelan, Angie Sewell, Aoibhlinn Steger, Andy Lowbridge, Callum McGrath, Gemma Whelan, Rachel Mulligan and Lauren Boyd Smith. Image: Freddie Stevens

Curiosity about science is a quality that should be kindled at a young age, and encouraged and fostered over a lifetime, writes John Kennedy.

It’s not every day that you pick up a newspaper and see the smiling face of your youngest niece staring back at you. That was my experience when, idly scanning a Saturday newspaper recently, I stumbled across a story where my niece Rachel was a member of the University College Dublin (UCD) Science Apprentice Wonder Panel of primary school kids who collaborated on a series of four books with science journalist and Siliconrepublic.com contributor Dr Claire O’Connell.

The four science books, aimed at primary students all over Ireland, were produced by UCD and partners including Science Foundation Ireland’s Discover Programme as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

‘As only a small fraction of a child’s life is spent in school, it is hugely important to develop and extend their interests beyond this’

It’s Science Week 2018 in Ireland and, across the country, 12 regional science festivals will each host their own packed schedules of one-day events, family activities, adult talks, school visits and workshops.

Everyone talks about Ireland being a bastion of literature and music, but it always baffled me that, despite the evidence, we don’t say the same about science or technology. But I believe this is changing. We are at a tipping point and kids of primary school age will play a starring role.

In the initial report where I saw my niece smiling proudly among a cadre of kids from diverse backgrounds from all over Ireland, a PhD candidate in the School of Education at UCD and former primary teacher, Sorcha Browne, said something that should resonate deeply.

“As only a small fraction of a child’s life is spent in school, it is hugely important to develop and extend their interests beyond this.”

As a child, I remember my late father, a maths teacher, explaining how then seemingly futuristic things such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and fibre optics worked. I didn’t realise it then, but he was teaching me about the future and this created a lifelong fascination that serves me to this day. In fact, every day.

Joining the Wonder Panel was Rachel’s own initiative. She saw a story in the newspaper seeking volunteers and she applied. Last Saturday, the pride that radiated from Rachel as we picked up the first copy of the book she collaborated on, and the enthusiastic way she talked about how the signals from our brain to the rest of our body exceed 100kph, made me wish my dad had been around to see this. The 11-year-old has modest ambitions to be an entrepreneur, a farmer and a bone doctor. And she plans to drive a gold Lamborghini.

Time to celebrate science and curiosity

It is overwhelmingly obvious that we are good at science and technology. As a nation, we punch above our weight. But this needs to pervade popular culture in the same way that sports or entertainment does. We need to engender a culture of curiosity in our young and celebrate it through their entire lives. Initiatives such as Science Week do matter.

Ireland introduced science to the primary education curriculum in 1999 for children from junior infants to sixth class, honing their basic scientific skills and an appreciation of their environment through science, geography and history.

There is ample evidence of how Ireland punches above its weight for science. Every year, the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) brings tens of thousands of people together to celebrate science. Earlier this year, more than 1,100 secondary school students from across Ireland showcased their talents in areas from chemistry to physics and technology. Coláiste Choilm student Simon Meehan took home the top prize from the 54th BTYSTE for his investigation into whether locally sourced plants contained chemicals that could potentially be used to control bacterial growth.

In recent weeks, we reported how ESB announced plans to fund a number of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM) initiatives as part of a new €7.5m programme called Generation Tomorrow. The programme will see children and teenagers introduced to a number of different topics, particularly research and innovation in sustainable energy and climate change.

One of the initiatives launched as part of the programme is ESB Science Blast, aimed at children in fourth and sixth class. It was created to encourage children’s curiosity about the world and make them better critical thinkers.

In June, more than 10,000 people flocked to the CoderDojo Foundation’s Coolest Projects exhibition in the RDS, where more than 700 projects from more than 1,000 young people were on show. CoderDojo was founded in 2011 by a young and eager James Whelton and SOSV partner Bill Liao. Since then, the movement has exploded on to the global scene, with more than 1,700 Dojos across more than 75 countries, providing coding education to children with a legion of volunteers. Last year, it merged with the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

There is hardly a week that goes by where Siliconrepublic.com does not cover some new breakthrough that emerges from an Irish university or college. Just last week, we reported how Dr Nora Khaldi’s start-up, Nuritas – whose backers include U2’s Bono and The Edge as well as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff – created a new bioactive ingredient using artificial intelligence that can be added to sports products such as energy drinks and nutrition bars to improve post-exercise recovery by reducing inflammation.

There needs to a broader appreciation across Irish society that science and discovery are an important part of who we are as a people and a culture.

Irish kids are good at this stuff. They are naturals. It is no accident that the EU Digital Girl of the Year title has gone to three young Irish people in the last few years, including Aoibheann Mangan (2017), Niamh Scanlon (2015) and Lauren Boyle (2014).

Curiosity is a quality that should be kindled at a very young age and encouraged over a lifetime. It needs to be appreciated in the same way we appreciate talent for music, GAA, rugby and literature.

We have the formula just right, we just need to celebrate it better and louder.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

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