Breakout stars return to Young Scientists exhibition

With a 53-year tradition of innovation and imagination, this year's projects are once again highly topical

Timothy McGrath from Killorglin Community College, Co Kerry, and his project Ultra Vision Pic:

"I have absolute confidence in the future of this country." The words of AA's Conor Faughnan, a judge for the second year running at the BT Young Scientists Exhibition, which opens to the public today at the RDS.

Faughnan, who is judging some 550 projects this year, added: "I've met outstanding young people, students of an exceptional calibre. The work on display here is simply dazzling. The next generation is showing itself to be very socially aware and extraordinarily well-informed.

"It's a real buzz to meet these bright, articulate, mannerly young people. I didn't expect to enjoy being a judge as much as I have, it has been so stimulating.

"And road safety, a theme close to my heart, is the subject of many of this year's projects by students who are about to become drivers themselves."

It's no coincidence that past Young Scientist winners have graced the covers of Forbes and Time magazine.

Patrick Collison heads to lunch with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg during a 2013 media and technology conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. Pic: Getty

Patrick Collison, 28, from Co Limerick, won the 41st exhibition in 2005, at the age of 16 with a project on a computer programming language. He now lives in San Francisco where he is chief executive ofStripe, which he startedwith his brother John Collison in 2010.

And 2013 winners Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy Thow from Kinsale, Co Cork, went on to win the 2014 Google Science global research competition in San Francisco. They later featured on the cover of Time for their work on Diazotroph, a naturally-occurring bacteria in soil. The girls were inspired to research food production after hearing about the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa.

Visitor numbers at the exhibition have doubled in the last six years - a total of 4,591 students from 375 schools have entered this year.

Social and behavioural sciences are the hot topics this year at 41 per cent of the entries, followed by biology and ecology projects at 29 per cent. Tech projects account for 16 per cent and chemical, physical and mathematical sciences take up 14 per cent.

Mari Cahalane started running the exhibition in 2009, moving from her role as head of events at BT Ireland. She said that BT is passionate about the exhibition because as a corporation, it truly believes that science and technology have the power to change lives.

Later next monthshe will run a business bootcamp at Nova UCD for 30 students working with them on patents, presentation skills and innovation.

Volunteers at the event

Some 200 people are recruited internally from BT Ireland to volunteer at the event and are distinguished by their red jackets.

This year’s projects cover a wide variety of topics, from dating to farming and everything in between.

Shay Walsh of BT Ireland said: "This is a record-breaking year for the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, with our highest number of entries to date.

"The quality of the projects on show this year is extraordinary, tackling some of the greatest challenges and opportunities facing society today - from ground-breaking digital tools for people with disabilities to the global migration crisis.

"We are proud to provide this amazing platform for young people for the 17th year, and to play our part in fostering and recognising STEM talent in Ireland."

This year's exhibition featuresan alumni showcase for previous participants who have formed companies to exhibit their commercial ventures.

Better Exams_ie is an online exam paper search engine founded by Danny Hobbs and James Eggers, both final year students at TCD.

The pair met at the BT Young Scientists business bootcamp when they were both 17, in 2012, and went on to found their venture, which allows state exam students to efficiently access past papers and marking schemes. The site is extremely user-friendly and allows students to search past papers by topic using keywords.

Hobbs is full of praise for the Young Scientists Exhibition and its pivotal role in his life. "The best aspect of the Young Scientists is the social aspect of it. You get to meet like-minded people," he said.

"I did Young Scientists for four years. When James and I met at the exhibition, we decided that if we went to the same college, we would work together.

"A huge aspect of the exhibition is business. You are pitching to the judges and then to the public. I realised that the thing I liked best was the pitching of ideas. The business bootcamp helps you to bring a product to life.

"If students have done Young Scientists, it stands to them in college in terms of being able to talk and to pitch. In college you have to make presentations. Having confidence in your ability to that is key."

Both at Trinity, Hobbs is studying business and economics and Eggers is studying computer science. Hobbs chose the entrepreneurship route despite his entire family working in the science field.

My dad slags me for doing a business degree but that's what I love about it, the entrepreneurship.

Hobbs said: "It's more exciting and there is more of a chance to fail. But if you fail at a business as a student, you just go back to being a student. That's why I encourage other students to try things. Especially with software development, it's just your own time you put in."

Eggers and Hobbs will graduate this summer and plan to take their business to the next level by selling exam management systems to third level institutions and to chartered exam bodies.

"We sell an administration interface for the cataloging and collection of exam papers," said Hobbs. As software developers, Eggers and Hobbs believe in doing one thing and doing it well. "We have a two-click policy for the user journey. Websites don't need to be big and clunky."

And their approach is working because their site has 100,000 users after 18 months, mostly second-level pupils and teachers. The pair are also now in talks with two third level colleges about pilot schemes.

And as successful and fulfilled participants in the Irish education system, Eggers and Hobbs want to give something back and are hosting the inaugural national teaching awards to be held at the TCD dining hall this spring. The awards will honour outstanding teachers for their contribution.

"Teachers don't get enough recognition," Hobbs said. "School is a social environment, and teachers are the main influencers in that environment so they have a huge impact on student life.

"We're looking for nominations onTeacherAwards,ie. We want the contribution of teachers to be recognised."

The duo also have global ambitions for their online exam papers concept. "We see Ireland is a test market. We're the only ones doing this, globally. We're the only ones focusing primarily on exam papers.

And yes, they already have an exit strategy.