Irish schoolgirls triumph at Google Science Fair and collect Grand Prize

23 Sep 2014

Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow and Émer Hickey presented with their Rising Star awards by Eamonn Sinnott, general manager, Intel Ireland, at Silicon Republic's Women Invent Tomorrow event in Dublin in June. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community School were last night named the overall winners of the Grand Prize as well as the 15-16 Age category at the Google Science Fair.

The Science Fair competition is Google’s way of encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers. The overall grand prize, which was awarded at a ceremony in California, includes a 10-day National Geographic Expedition to the Galapagos Islands, a visit to the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico, and US$50,000 in scholarship funding.

The three students from Kinsale Community School in Cork – who won the BT Young Scientist & Technology Award in 2013 – won the Grand Prize as well as the  15-16 Age Group category for their project entitled “Combating the Global Food Crisis: Diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop growth promoter.”

The girls’ project investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid.

Sophie Healy-Thow, Emer Hickey and Ciara Judge at Google in Dublin recently

They carried out an extensive study on crops of wheat, oats and barley and statistical analysis of their results indicated that naturally occurring Rhizobium strains of the diazotroph bacteria family accelerated germination by up to 50pc and, in the case of barley, increased yields by 74pc. Not only could this discovery address food poverty, it could also reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint by reducing the use of fertiliser.

The students were congratulated by the Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English Td.

“Congratulations to Ciara, Emer and Sophie on their stellar achievement at this global competition”, said Minister English, “Ireland is now firmly established as a centre of excellence for scientific research and it is encouraging to see Irish students playing a role in furthering this reputation on an international stage.

“This project has significant potential to address food poverty and could also reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint by lowering the use of fertiliser. The students, their parents and teachers should all be very proud of their achievement.”

The Minister noted that more needs to be done to encourage science education in Irish schools.

“Ensuring the future pipeline of a skilled workforce in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) is vital to protecting Ireland’s position as a serious global player in the science and technology sector.

Events like the Google Science Fair, BT Young Scientist Exhibition and SciFest all help to nurture this pipeline.

Smart Futures, a collaborative government-industry initiative managed by Science Foundation Ireland promotes STEM careers to post-primary students in Ireland, has already engaged with 28,000 students. As part of the Action Plan for Jobs 2014, Smart Futures is committed to training 400 Industry volunteers to engage with schools over the coming academic year. All of these measures enable students to play a crucial role in developing a sustainable economy in Ireland,” said Minister English.

Ciara Judge spoke movingly at the recent Digital Ireland Forum about how children are crying out for digital skills to be taught in Irish schools.

Ciara Judge at the Digital Ireland Forum, part 1

Digital Ireland Forum: Keynote address by Ciara Judge, Digital Youth Council – Part 1 of 2

Ciara Judge at the Digital Ireland Forum, part 2

Digital Ireland Forum: Keynote address by Ciara Judge, Digital Youth Council – Part 2 of 2

The progress of innovation and science in Ireland will be one of the key themes discussed at this year’s Innovation Ireland Forum in the Guinness Storehouse on Friday, October 24

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