A few years ago, Paddy O'Reilly, a physical education teacher at Trinity Comprehensive school in Ballymun began to think about the possibilities of his subject. The annual Young Scientist exhibition had long been established as one of the prestige calendar events of the school year. Couldn't something similar happen within PE?
O'Reilly and other staff members within the school put together the first ever PE Expo event in April 2015. It was held within the school and a few other schools from the city and around Ireland entered. They knew they had enough to make it an annual event. It grew steadily and was moved to DCU, until the Covid-19 pandemic forced a switch to online. Next Wednesday, it returns to DCU with 47 schools from across Ireland entering projects.
St Brogan's College from Bandon in Cork will be among the schools preparing for dawn bus trips to the capital. Last year, St Brogan's won the overall junior section with Caoimhe Walsh's project, Can Teens Make Better Food Choices? The project was supervised by her home economics teacher Karen Corbett. Over the years, the appeal of the project has extended far beyond the confines of the traditional understanding of PE to incorporate other subject interests.
“The main aim of PE in school any way is to create lifelong confident participants in physical activity and exercise,” says Pádraig Reidy, who teaches PE in St Brogan’s.
“The expo allows the students to explore sports and wellbeing in areas they like themselves and discover how sport and activity can influence lives.
"Ireland is projected to be one of the most obese countries in Europe by 2050. So understanding the health and wellbeing aspects of PE is important. The expo looks at the sports science aspects and promotes those traits in students. So it is an excellent exhibition for promoting sport and physical activity in Ireland."
St Brogan's are entering three projects, all completed by transition year students. Joshua Ross and Harry Ross have studied the impact that Covid-19 has had on general wellbeing and examine the pursuit of happiness through physical education. Barry Murphy and Shane Ryan's presentation is on e-sports (Pernicious Influence or Powerful Tool).
The third project has already had a practical application: Emma Heady, Rachel O'Donovan, Ciara Heverin and Ruby O'Leary conducted extensive research into pre-workout stretching habits and compared them with post-exercise habits. They found fewer than 50 per cent of respondents regularly practised cool-down stretches. They consulted a sports rehabilitation specialist and drafted a cool-down programme which has now been incorporated into the weekly practices of all sports teams in the school.
The expo reflects a move towards the core of the Irish curriculum for PE, which is now a Leaving Cert subject. The surging popularity of gym culture and increasing knowledge and interest in sports science has helped to shift perceptions of the traditional role of PE as a fringe subject in the imagination of Irish schoolgoers.
“Yeah before it could have been seen in some schools as a doss subject where you go in and do your double class,” says Reidy.
“But with the introduction of the short course in the junior cycle and the Leaving Cert, it is moving in the right direction. As teachers we are trying to have an impact on their lives now and in the future as well. So it is nearly one of the most important subjects in school in terms of impacting a student’s health and wellbeing in the future where they learn different skills and competencies they will use throughout their lives, whether that is participating in sport or creating a healthy life plan with sleep and exercise in nutrition.”
The variety of exhibition subjects mirrors the broadening range of knowledge and curiosities. Among the exhibitions showing next week are a study on the correct angle for the run-up of a place-kick in rugby, an exhibition on the influence of art and photography in PE and a piece on whether the 20/20 campaign to promote the awareness and profile of women in sport made a tangible difference.
“Last year, a project on the use of visualisation in sport was one of the winners,” says O’Reilly.
“The overall winner came from Abbey School in Tipperary town, assessing the impact of PE on the physical wellbeing of adolescents. Our own project this year looks at the role of cryptocurrency in sport. So the idea behind it is that our students engage academically in the area of physical education. So it’s a really interesting cross-section.”
The Olympian Jack Woolley, sports writer and author Paul Kimmage and RTÉ commentator Darragh Maloney are among those who have been guest judges at past editions of the expo, which, much like the subject it explores, is steadily making its way towards the core of the Irish school calendar.
The 2022 PExpo takes place in DCU on April 6th. For further information visit pexpoireland.com