Hard or soft? It's melon entry, my dear Watson


Don’t you just hate it when you buy what looks like a perfectly good melon only to find it is as hard as a sliothar or soft as mush?

Well not any more if a project on display next week at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition by students from Blackwater Community School, Co Waterford, works out.

Lorraine Bray and Treasa Fitzgerald are working on a reliable way to test the ripeness of melons without cutting them open.

It is based on tapping them with a wooden mallet and recording the sound waves as they pass through. They record these and also calculate the melon’s density. After that they open the melon up and measure sugar content and taste.

The object is to be able to predict whether it will be a good melon by the sound waves alone. It may be a tall order but the two students are having a go.

As ever the range of projects that will be on display at the RDS next week are very impressive. Some deal with the big issues of our times like energy and health.

Elaine Looby of Blackwater School is running an elaborate series of experiments looking at bioethanol production. She is using a yeast that can break down cellulose from plant material and wood, even if the wood is from old furniture.

“I want to get Ireland moving towards a greener future in terms of bioethanol production,” she says.

Fellow students Lucy Hartley, Cathal Lee and Shane Moloney are looking at keeping the heat in your house once you have burned the fuel. They are assessing the contribution to heat retention made by the outside layer of roofing materials, comparing the performance of slate, thatch and a living “green” roof.

On the medical front, Kaylan Barrowman and Emer Traynor from St Mary’s College, Co Derry, are conducting experiments to see if a common vitamin could be used to wipe out MRSA superbugs.

They worked through a sequence of experiments to see if the natural antibiotic activity of Niacin, vitamin B3, could be used to control resistant staph infections and kill off E coli and B subtillis bacteria.

Their schoolmate Chelsey Barrowman is also assessing antibiotic activity, this time provided by green tea. Some class it a “superfood” because of its ability to act as an antioxidant, she says.

Chelsey decided to assess the evidence available that green tea might also be a natural antibiotic. She tested it against E coli and B subtilis bacteria in various concentrations and as a competitor to the common antibiotic drug amoxycillin.

Other projects at the exhibition will track between the fun and the fascinating, like testing hamsters to gauge their capacity to learn.

The latter project is being run by Jade Coffey, Lauren Walsh and Alison Behan of Kildare Town Community School. Their goal? To show whether hamsters shown human affection have a greater capacity to learn.

Their schoolmates, Nora Jane Prendergast and Ciara Noonan meanwhile are looking at body language and our ability to interpret it. They want to see whether boys or girls do a better job of recognising the signs.

Controlling credit card fraud was the goal of Anna O’Hara and Lauren Harkin of St Mary’s in Co Derry. Smart cards that could be “waved” at a reader to pay for goods were introduced in the hopes of blocking the fraudsters, but just as quickly this security approach was defeated, the students say.

The thieves developed their own readers that can read a card from about a metre away. This allowed them to steal the information embedded on the card and then produce a cloned card to perpetrate a fraud.

The two students are looking for ways to overcome this weakness by using a barrier layer that can block the illegal readers. It could be used to line handbags, wallets or clothing to prevent card information from being stolen.

The exhibition is important in that it increases student engagement with the sciences, says BT chief executive officer Colm O’Neill. It raises awareness of the sciences, allows the students to pursue new ideas and gives them a chance to shine.

For more information about the exhibition go to byyoungscientist.comor see facebook.com/BTYSTEor twitter.com/btyste

Young scientists show brain power

The brain power, discipline and determination of the young scientists exhibiting at the RDS is an impressive thing to see. The commitment of the students is the fuel that has powered the exhibition over the 49 years since the first one took place in 1964.

Two UCD lecturers, Rev Dr Tom Burke and Dr Tony Scott, had travelled to the US the year before and came across a “science fair” there. They were taken in particular by a project on launching rockets and the two decided to organise a similar event in Ireland. The first was held in the Round Room at the Mansion House in Dublin but since 1965 it has taken place at the RDS Main Hall in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

The projects on display “are the culmination of many long hours of research and development by students”, says Colm O’Neill, chief executive officer of the main sponsor, BT. Even after 49 years “it continues to set new records”, he adds.

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is open to the public from next Thursday to Saturday, January 10th to 12th.