It was a chance encounter with a school student in the United States that sowed the seeds of what today is one of the largest student science fairs in Europe.

 By Will Goodbody, Science and Technology Correspondent

UCD researchers, Fr Tom Burke and Dr Tony Scott, were on a research visit in New Mexico when Fr Burke met a boy who had built a rocket for an upcoming science fair. The two Irish scientists were not familiar with such student based exhibitions and so Fr Burke went along to see what it was all about.

It was to prove a pivotal moment. What he saw sparked an idea for a similar event in Ireland, and between them the two men began hatching a plan for a young scientist exhibition on their return.

The first exhibition took place in Dublin's Mansion House with just a couple of hundred students. It was won by a young Kildare man, John Monahan, who had a project about the digestive system. But the concept, like the rocket built by the boy in New Mexico, quickly took off.

Fifty years later, the now named BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) is celebrating a half century of motivating and inspiring young people to get involved in scientific experimentation and discovery.

It has helped guide some of Ireland’s best and brightest students into careers in science, many at the highest level.

Mr Monahan went on to become a highly successful US-based biotech entrepreneur. Other names, such as Professor Luke Drury of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dr Ronan McNulty of UCD and Patrick Collison, the co-founder of online payment company Stripe, are just some of the high-profile scientists who scooped the top prize over the years.

Fr Burke passed away in 2008. But Dr Scott is still a major driving force behind the exhibition, the success of which he puts down to a combination of the students, their teachers, the sponsors and several generations of volunteer organisers. He is always keen to underline that it is not a competition, but an exhibition. And he puts much emphasis on the fact that the judging is of the highest calibre, carried out by a team of Irish experts in their field.

The popularity and success of the event means there are many more projects entered every year than can be accommodated. This year over 2,000 projects were entered, with 550 selected for the exhibition. 1,200 students are taking part from all over the country.

This year there is also an exhibition for primary school pupils, without a competitive element. CoderDojo is on hand to demonstrate the fun side of computer coding. And there are also robotics demonstrations, live shows and interactive exhibits.

Increasingly, there is also a business dimension to the exhibition. Along with BT Ireland, organisations such as Intel, Analog Devices and RTÉ co-sponsor the event. And this year, BT has organised a series of business meetings around the main exhibition to show companies the best and brightest young talent that Irish science and technology will have to offer in the future.

It's an important development in what has become a significant event in the Irish scientific calendar. And at a time of unprecedented demand for technology skills both in Ireland and abroad, it is vital that it continues to thrive.

So Happy Birthday BTYSTE, and many happy returns.

Will Goodbody's reports:
Six One News: Young scientists prepare for 2014 competition
Six One News: Final preparations under way
Six One News: Winner of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition to be announced

One News: Young scientist competition under way
Nine News: 50th Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition begins in Dublin

Cian McCormack's Morning Ireland reports:
Young Scientist Exhibition opens at the RDS
Science technology and invention takes centre stage