Young scientists who inspire faith in the future
NET RESULTS:The cab driver grew animated when I said my destination was the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition in the RDS.
“Ahhhh, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? Those kids are just fantastic. That’s the future of this country. Right now, so many are emigrating, but I think those students are going to be the ones who will create our new jobs in the future.”
Had he ever been himself? No, he said. He had thought about it, but had never gone in, but he had listened to several programmes on the radio about different projects and had heard the students interviewed. He marvelled that university researchers had noted that these students, still in their teens, had done original research that had gone into new areas and in some cases, come up with some groundbreaking results. They weren’t just students doing some science projects. They were scientists. Full stop.
I urged him to go next year and I hope he does, because I don’t think there is anything that happens in this country that is as uplifting, inspiring and, in some ways, nostalgic, as this annual competition.
For anybody well into adulthood, the memories of what it was like to be a teenager come flooding back. The slightly awkward boys in their recently dropped voices; laughing girls, who all seem to have shortened their skirts a bit more than the standard; the serious confidence and enthusiasm as they explain their projects to passersby; the comical and the sweet.
There was the project about capturing methane in ingenious ways as it exited a cow from either end and one about whether dogs liked music, complete with little pictures and names of each of the participating dogs.
And of course, the intense whiff of teenage hormones; as RTÉ presenter Claire Byrne, MC at last Saturday night’s formal Young Scientists dinner , noted, after the students’ Wednesday night disco positively everybody was in love with somebody by Thursday morning.
A visit to the show on Saturday, when the judging is over and students are more relaxed, always features clusters of boys and girls hanging out – the braver ones joking and chatting away, the shyer ones out on the edges, but just as intent. For me at least, I can feel the years fall away and the memories of that intense teenage mix of excitement, anxiety, goofiness, and energy flooding back.
For these students with the show’s 550 projects who already, even before a single award is handed out, have all been selected as the very best among the thousands who submit proposals – there will be a new sense of self, a new inkling of possibility, a new belief in ability.
Every year, the best winning projects at the top of the exhibition hall on Saturday never fail to blow me away. The professionalism, the hard work and the hard science are always breathtaking.
This year’s winners of the top Young Scientist award – a charming trio of third- year students from Kinsale Community School in Cork, Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow – had a fantastic project on the effects of bacteria on plant germination.
I loved their exuberance, intelligence, and humour, which all shone. Was there anything in their project that might have commercial application, asked Byrne, who had brought the young scientists to the stage? Quick as a flash, Emer replied that there were indeed possibilities, but they couldn’t talk about them for now – bringing a round of applause and laughter.
Good for them – and good for Ireland. It’s exciting to see this competition increasingly have an awareness of these bright students as not just young scientists and technologists, but also young entrepreneurs. Many winners in previous years have gone on to make great contributions to companies or to found their own.
The other highlight for me each year is to see how deeply the whole country embraces this competition. The endless creativity of the student work and all the participating companies and organisations that provide a wide range of interactive science and technology for visitors, turn the Young Scientist competition into a five-star event, loved by the public.
I cannot imagine there are many countries in which a science and technology exhibition like this is a genuine family day out, which says much about Ireland and its youth. Nor can I imagine that the excitement in that hall does not inspire some young visitors to think: “I could do – I want to do – that.”
If you haven’t been, mark it on your calendar for next year. You won’t regret it.