BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition is much more than a competition; it is an unforgettable experience of a lifetime for the students who take part.
Over 1,350 projects were entered into BTYSTE 2021 with over 550 projects from 213 schools qualifying to take part. A combination of coronavirus and lockdown forced us to virtualise an event that typically draws between 45,000-55,000 people over four days to the RDS in Dublin, for the first time in its history. We rose to the challenge and the event took place in January 2021 and still managed to capture the excitement of the exhibition whilst gaining a new global audience in the process. With over 105,000 attendees from 77 countries, the virtual event proved to be a great success for all involved.
When coronavirus led to uncertainty around schools being open in March 2020 and the likelihood of the physical exhibition being cancelled in January 2021, we had numerous discussions with stakeholders on how to proceed. In April it was decided to leverage our technical expertise and work with our partners to deliver a virtual event.
The big challenge in taking it online was virtualising a tried-and-tested exhibition programme in such a tight timeframe, with the constantly evolving threat of coronavirus in the background.
A move to online would also demand strict governance around security and data integrity as well as the resilience of the virtual environment – going offline was not an option. All of the solutions were well within the capabilities of BT and its ecosystem; the challenge was selecting the right partners with the necessary capabilities to deliver the best experience.
We set out to produce a custom-built web portal that could capture a multi-faceted event with so many moving parts. It was designed to showcase a student project space, on-stage areas, virtual rooms, sponsor stands and an exhibition hall.
Microsoft 365 and Teams was identified as the main communication and collaboration platform for students, a core requirement for sharing and showcasing projects entries, as well as video interviews in the judging process. Microsoft is a BT global partner and set up a dedicated 365 tenancy to support the event, mobilising 1,300 students with their own accounts to participate from home, with a consistent user experience. This tenancy was deployed quickly in under a month, enabling first-round judging from October. The capabilities of MS Teams allowed for ease of scheduling, recording of judging sessions and screen-sharing of projects, with custom BTYSTE Teams backgrounds for students. With privacy and security built into the Microsoft cloud platform, BT had a robust and resilient foundation for the most complicated part of the event.
Another key BT partner and long-standing sponsor for BTYSTE was Cisco – BT is one of four Gold Partners globally. The Cisco Webex conferencing platform was leveraged to host Nextipedia, the BT business innovation symposium, attracting over 400 participants. The solution enabled keynote speakers such as Aron Ralston to participate in the event from all over the world.
For the opening and closing live events, footage was captured and streamed in real time from the BTYSTE Facebook site as well as the portal. The Mansion House in Dublin, which is where the first ever BT Young Scientist event took place, was used for shooting pre-recorded videos as well as the live events.
Wrapped around it all was BT expertise and innovation, with over 100 employees directly involved. Some brought technical skills from their day jobs to the task of virtualising a physical event; others used their project management and organisational skills, hosting all judging sessions with students, chasing down content, checking for copyright issues, making sure immovable deadlines were always met.
BTYSTE 2021 was a huge success. Over 1,350 projects were entered with over 550 from 213 schools qualifying to take part in the event. Whittling down the entries were 85 judges, carrying out their assessments remotely, taking part in over 2,500 Teams interviews with students over two-days. Scheduled and hosted by BT employees, 110,000 minutes of audio and 107,000 minutes of video were recorded in that period.
The three-day virtual event attracted more people than ever before to BTYSTE, with 105,000 unique visitors to the portal from 77 countries. Seven million hits were spread across the portal; content was accessed from 54,000 devices and over 250,000 minutes of video were watched.
Going online succeeded not just in enabling the event to take place during the pandemic, but in bringing it to a wider audience. Summing up the success of the project, Mari Cahalane put it down to the commitment of all involved. “BT’s prowess in technology was a good starting point for delivering a virtual event in very trying conditions, but it was the commitment of people that got us over the line – BT employees and our partners,” she said. “School students are eligible to enter BTYSTE for a limited number of years; we didn’t want to limit them further by cancelling. We are delighted that it all worked out and, once again, we got to showcase Ireland’s extraordinary young talent.”