Young scientists shine at Excited digital learning festival (videos)

6 Jun 2014

From left: Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow and Emer Hickey speak at the Excited digital learning festival in Dublin, May 2014

Three young scientists stood out at the inaugural Excited digital learning festival in Dublin last weekend when they reported on how school students want to use technology to learn. Claire O’Connell reports.

School students want to use iPads to learn. They want to use Skype to talk to students in other countries and find out about other cultures, and they want to use Google Earth to learn more about history and geography. Oh, and they want electrical sockets, plenty of them, to plug in computers and recharge mobile devices.

Those were some of the suggestions made by students at the Excited event last weekend in Dublin Castle, during workshops facilitated by Accenture.

Students are plugged in

As the young students were contributing their opinions and ideas on subjects ranging from the use of technology to how to deal with cyberbullying, 16-year-old Ciara Judge walked around, tuning in to the animated conversations.

Judge and her fellow Kinsale Community School students Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow won the overall BT Young Scientists of the Year title in 2013, when they were in third year at school, with a project that looked at the effects of bacteria on plant germination. The three were on-hand at Excited to present and discuss the survey’s findings to the conference, and Judge was impressed at how plugged-in the schoolchildren were to technology.

“The awareness of the kids of technology wowed me – it shows they are growing up in a culture outside school where technology really is a massive part of their lives, and it seems so natural for them to bring it in to school,” she tells

“They were also saying we are going to need better Wi-Fi and more plug sockets for the computers. That is something that could possibly be overlooked, and the fact that they were thinking so practically about it is positive.”


Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow and Emer Hickey speak at the inaugural Excited digital learning festival in Dublin, May 2014

Get the mix right in digital learning

Judge reckons that technology can help to “make the learning experience 3D”, noting that videos can be used to present and reinforce material. “Say, in history you are studying the French revolution; there are some interesting and educational videos [available] on YouTube and through the BBC,” she says. “That would certainly make the learning experience more memorable for me.”

But she also believes that digital technology in education should not be everything. “You don’t want to lose that personal contact, especially in the early years,” she says. “So I think that digital technology should be used to diversify the learning experience. Rather than switching from pens and papers over to computers, it should be a mixture.”

Healy-Thow, who, like Judge and Hickey, has just finished transition year, agrees that a mixture of face-to-face and technology is a good idea. “I wouldn’t want our school students to be taught in a completely digital way. I think they would benefit more from the blended learning method,” she says, adding the ‘flipped classroom’ (where students look up resources outside of class-time and then discuss the subjects in class) to her wish list.

However, Healy-Thow is also practical about the challenges that face an upheaval of education, such as affordability and developing the connectivity required. “Better broadband services in every school throughout the country should be put in place,” she says.

Hickey welcomes the fact that young people were invited to the Excited event, where they could not only learn from speakers and panel discussions but contribute, too. “It is important for us, who are in the education system, to be heard,” she says.

BTYSTE opens doors

The Excited conference is not the first time that Judge, Hickey and Healy-Thow have left a crowd wowed. Winning the BT Young Scientist award, and then going on to win the Biology prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Prague has opened numerous doors for the students.

In March, they were in Brussels on a panel at the EU Innovation Convention, offering ‘Lessons from Generation Z’ with EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan Quinn. Later this year, they will be at the London International Youth Science Forum and they will visit CERN in Geneva. “The opportunities that we have had as a result of winning at the BTYSTE and the EU competition have been endless,” says Judge.


A video by Judge, Healy-Thow and Hickey explaining their BTYSTE project

Kinsale success

Kinsale Community School has had an impressive record at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in recent years. Judge’s brother Edward entered the competition when his sister was just five years old and won his category, then her sister Aisling won the overall prize in 2006 for developing a food spoilage indicator. In 2009, Kinsale students John D O’Callaghan and Liam McCarthy took home the top honour with their method to count somatic cells in milk as a measure of cow health.

Success breeds success and, over the years, these accolades have helped to encourage more involvement from students in the school, according to Judge. “People are seeing almost every year we have some massive prize to bring home,” she says.

Bright futures

With such a spectacular trail already blazed by the young students, it’s hard to believe the three are only now starting the Leaving Cert cycle, but they are already thinking ahead. Healy-Thow is considering a career as a biologist or marine biologist, Hickey is interested in science communication and Judge would like to be involved in research to improve animal health. In the shorter term, she and Hickey are looking to spend time doing charitable work in Africa. 

For students who have an interest in science, technology, engineering or maths, Judge encourages them to forge ahead, even if it is not always considered the coolest thing to do. “Don’t be afraid of what others will think,” she says. “If you are doing something that you are happy doing, that is what matters.”

Healy-Thow also emphasises the enjoyment of being involved in discovery. “Have fun!” she says. “When doing your project, choose a topic you enjoy or that you have an interest in or passion for. Question everything around you. You might stumble upon a question that hasn’t been answered yet. And don’t be afraid to ask professionals for help, most of them are very willing to give up their time and expertise.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication