Young Scientist exhibition shows Ireland at its brightest and best

Beloved national institution is so familiar it is easy to overlook how extraordinary it is

The 2018 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition opens in Dublin, featuring 550 projects by 2,500 students from all over Ireland. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The month of January is a perfect match for the annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition.

The start of a fresh year is traditionally a time of new beginnings, of thinking forward, of vigour, of commitment. All that is represented by the head of the god Janus, for whom the month is named – one face looking backwards at the departing year, one face looking forward to the promise ahead, an open page waiting for the hand that will write upon it.

At the exhibition the hands are many, of all ages, from the primary students at the accompanying Primary Science Fair event to the final-year students nearly ready for adult life.

Just walk into the RDS, or watch the media coverage, and inhale the energy, enthusiasm and exhilaration of those thousands of participating students as well as the tens of thousands who stream through the RDS over three days to view the projects and enjoy the events and activities.

You cannot remain unmoved or indifferent. They are all, collectively, joyfully, just the antidote to thinking of cold January, or a new year, as static. More than a thousand young minds exuberantly stating: “We are your future. Believe in us. Look forward with us.”

National institution

The exhibition has become such a beloved national institution, with broad local and national coverage, that it is easy to overlook how extraordinary it is.

In other places science exhibitions and competitions are generally low-key affairs. Much loved by many, yes, but they just do not get the broad regional and national commitment that Irish schools, teachers and students (and sponsors) bring to the Young Scientist exhibition. Nor do they get the media coverage. Nor do they draw thousands of (paying!) visitors from all over the country, from school classes to families to, well, anyone really.

Outside visitors are in variably astonished by the all-Ireland dedication to this event. Past VIPs including footballer Rio Ferdinand, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and (this year) eminent broadcaster Jon Snow have been floored by the mass popularity of the event and the projects on display.

I spent most of my childhood in Silicon Valley and though there were locally important county science fairs (at which Valley pioneers such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak submitted winning projects) they were never a part of annual school life. Nor did my schools, much less my family, attend the fairs.

Want some insight into just how good Irish competitors at the exhibition are on the international stage?

Consider that this year Ireland will host the EU’s top competition for young scientists, the European Union Contest for Young Scientists. In September, more than 100 projects from more than 40 countries will compete for the title, and the event also will celebrate its 30th year (nothing on the Young Scientist exhibition, though, which has been going for 54 years). Each year, Ireland sends the Young Scientist winner as its competitor.

Ireland has taken the top prize in 14 of the last 28 years. That’s jaw-dropping.

This year’s Young Scientist overall winner, Simon Meehan – a transition-year student at Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig, Co Cork – will be a strong contender with his project in which he extracted and identified natural antibiotics for treating human infections, particularly MRSA. His major discovery was the effectiveness of the lowly and heretofore overlooked Irish bramble at this task.

In common with many other students with more advanced projects at the exhibition, 15-year-old Meehan utilised some needed lab resources at UCC. He also received and acknowledged advice on the process from a UCC lecturer and his mother, a microbiologist.

Mentors

This led a few misguided folks on Twitter to claim the exhibition title should be “Unwinnable by any Regular Teenager”. A silly claim, given that regular teenagers have won the award every year, across a huge range of science and technical topics, where in all cases students receive advice and guidance from their chosen mentors but also adhere to strict competition rules.

Quite a few of those projects on display this year, and every year, need facilities that schools generally cannot offer, and many students, including past winners, are advised by a parent and/or academic who may be a professional in the field. That’s little different from any research project anywhere, and contributes to the high standards of the exhibition overall.

The key point is this: Young Scientist winners undergo an exhaustive grilling by five judging panels and more than 10 judges from varied science backgrounds. A broader and rigorous examination than most end-of-year university projects.

A look at past winning projects readily demonstrates that sometimes these need some external resources, and sometimes they don’t. But they are all completed and defended at a sophisticated, internationally-competitive level by regular teenagers, like the delightfully eloquent Meehan.

So, Ireland, celebrate your many amazing, regular teenagers who gather each January at the RDS. Like the Young Scientist exhibition, they are unique. They are, so specially, yours, stepping forward with accomplishment into their own exciting futures.

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