I was lucky enough to be one of the judges at the BT Young Scientist’s exhibition in Dublin in the first week of January. This gave me two rather different opportunities to see Irish school children. First, I got to meet the people who put in projects. These included the eventual winners, Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy from Cork, and about forty other people, all aged between 12 and 18, whose group projects, all entered into the Social and Behavioural Sciences section of the exhibition, I got to judge. (Every single project gets judged three times, independently, and those in the running for prizes are reviewed by further judges.)
They were a very impressive group. Even the weakest projects showed effort, enthusiasm, and a lot of work. The good ones would have been very acceptable from good university undergraduates. The projects that won the prizes in our section, were better again. The overall winners, after only a years work, were at the standard I’d expect from a good MSc, and their work was immediately publishable. This is an astonishing accomplishment. All the students who entered, their teachers and their families, deserve great credit.
The topics they presented, however, show a slightly darker side to Irish life. ‘Alcohol consumption – does the apple fall far from the tree’ from the overall winners asked a simple question – How do parental attitudes to alcohol affect the behaviour and attitudes of their teenage children? As you might expect, they do, and the effect is strong. What is most scary from their work is the high prevalence of really risky drinking in both teenagers and parents, and the complete lack of understanding of the risks.
A team from Kinsale community school in Cork, looked at awareness of male suicide, and access to services and education about suicide. they found a good level of awareness, but quite big difference between young men and young women in how they respond to their distress. The boys, as has been shown before, tend to bottle it up.
Several groups looked at obesity, diet and exercise. A team from Loreto Abbey looked at how much people knew about the calorie content of common foods. A group from Ardscoil Ui Urmoltaigh, in Cork looked at easy ways to detect spiked drinks. A group from St. Colmcilles’ in Dublin looked at how much exercise was needed to use the calories in common snacks – far more than you might expect, by the way. A group from Mount Sackville in dublin looked at calorie labelling and its effect on vending machine sales. The group most affected was the small proportion of kids who got most of their lunch time food from the machines.
The most original title I saw was definitely ‘On Wednesday we wear pirate hats’ a piece of experimental sociology from Avondale in Wicklow. They established, as social norm in their school, that people wore black paper pirate hats on Wednesdays – a graphic example of the power of persuasion!
Overall, these young men and women showed a great awareness of the real challenges facing many of their peers. Those who go into the Young Scientist, besides being bright, tend to be confident and outgoing. They realized clearly that not everyone is like that. They see, day by day, the effect of inactivity, obesity, alcohol, drugs and poor mental health on the lives of their peers, and they document that effect beautifully. Most of those I met have a very sophisticated, what we might describe as ‘grown up’, understanding of their world, and of the people in it. They also have lots of good ideas on how to improve it.
The Irish government is also good at identifying risks. We have pretty good policies on obesity, exercise, alcohol use, and sexual activity. However, if doing anything to implement one of these policies causes any bother, we just fold over and lie down. There are still vending machines in most Irish secondary schools selling junk. We still have far too little PE on our schools, secondary and primary. Proposals to stop Diageo and friends peddling alcohol to teenagers with pictures of instantly recognizable GAA and rugby stars have run into the ground. An ex-president of the GAA described this, quite correctly, as ‘spineless’. One very prominent ex-rugby star, Brian O’Driscoll has even signed up as a Coca-Cola ambassador.
Our children deserve better. Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Justice, is bringing forward a new bill on children and family relationships, which I welcome. Could we add a bill to support our children in living healthy lives, even if it might hit the profits of multinationals, and the pockets of sports stars?