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Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

Young Scientists and Second-Level Reform

Paul Rowe, CEO, Educate Together

This week I attended the RDS Science Fair to visit five Educate Together primary schools that were showing their projects. The RDS Primary Science Fair, which is non-competitive, is open to 4th – 6th class age groups across Ireland and takes place annually alongside the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Many of the young scientists that exhibit at the Science Fair will go on to show their work in the Exhibition.

The schools were from Midleton, Co Cork, Newbridge and Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Drogheda, Co. Louth and Balbriggan, Co. Dublin. They were all great projects. The children impressed with the confidence and enthusiasm with which they explained their experiments. They covered rockets, paper-making, hydration, body language and decomposition of food. For the Midleton team, the children, staff and parent helpers had been up for a 5:00 am start and a long coach journey and in the case of Bracken ETNS (Balbriggan) and Newbridge ETNS, it had involved the staff giving up their Saturday to bring the children to the show.

Paul Rowe with students and teachers of Midleton ETNS and their project 'Why do we need to drink water?'


The entire event was, as normal, a hive of excited school students with their teachers and parents. The noise level in the halls, especially on Saturday was impressive. Thousands of students, teachers and parents attended. In almost all cases, the projects were chosen by the children themselves and involve detailed investigation, independent thought and serious scientific work. Some of the projects are quite extraordinary. I remember years in which subject matter experts had to be found to evaluate some projects which quite baffled the judging panel.

It is probably about the fifteenth year I have visited the BT Young Scientist Exhibition. Every time I leave the hall on the Saturday, I ask myself the same question, ‘why do these projects not amount to a single mark in a students' leaving certificate at the end of their school career?’

One of the fascinating elements is the way the organisers define the skills to be evaluated in the competition. The organisers separate these skills into ‘Working Scientifically’ and ‘Designing and Making’. ‘Working Scientifically’ includes ‘questioning, observing, predicting, investigating, experimenting, estimating, measuring, analysing, interpreting data, recording and communicating’. ‘Designing and Making’ includes ‘exploring, planning, making and evaluating’.

This range of skills appears to be central to education for science and technology and for life in general yet I struggle to see how they are measured in our current Leaving Certificate. It seems to be absurd and short-sighted that there is currently no way in which a mark or points can be awarded for this work. For science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and preparation for further studies at university, it really ticks all the boxes. Almost every project is collaborative and requires good social skills and teamwork. The emphasis on ‘doing’ real science rather than learning facts from books is obvious and the final challenge of presentation and communication of the work is essential. 

It is quite clear that the winners of the BT Young Scientists do indeed get great recognition from the system. Universities queue up to attract them to their courses. They are on the radio and TV. The top winners go on to other international competitions and receive a range of supports and attention. My concern is not primarily with them. I am concerned with the hundred or so ‘first division’ projects - projects that may have been excellent but didn’t make it to the final shake out that requires a single winner. These projects get nothing, like the famous ‘null points’ in the Eurovision. The sixth-year secondary school students involved now put away their computers, put aside their digital skills. Stop imagining and investigating. They set aside their independent thoughts and analysis. They concentrate on training for the handwriting marathon of regurgitated rote-learned information that is the only way that they will access a university place next year.

Surely some way can be found in the immediate future to award a bank of CAO points based on transparent and fair criteria for these projects? Doesn’t this go to the very heart of the current debate and educational politics of second-level reform and a long-overdue review of the Leaving Certificate?

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816