Co-operative effort adds up to Maths Week

4 Oct 2013

Dr Sheila Donegan, co-founder of Maths Week

The countdown is on to Maths Week 2013 in Ireland, which kicks off on 12 October. Co-founder Dr Sheila Donegan talked to Claire O’Connell about bringing maths, science and engineering to the masses – and why it’s important to get children engaged early.

Maths Week sets out to change people’s attitudes and perceptions,” says Donegan, a key driver behind the initiative, which involves activities for schools, families and the public in general. “We want to encourage people not to shy away from it but to see maths as something that can be challenging and really rewarding.”

Maths Week Ireland is now the largest festival of its kind in the world, she adds. “It has grown to this status because it is a co-operative, grassroots movement of universities, institutes of technology, museums and professional bodies, all interested in the promotion of maths and its applications.”

It’s also the largest event co-ordinated by Calmast (the Centre for the Advancement of Learning of Maths, Science and Technology), which Donegan set up a decade ago with colleague Eoin Gill. And one of the big lessons they have learned along the way is that when it comes to getting people engaged in science, technology, engineering and maths, it’s best to start early. 

“Originally, we had started talking to Leaving Cert students and we realised quite quickly that it was way too late,” recalls Donegan. “We really needed to be starting in primary school, encouraging primary school children to have a positive image and attitude about maths and science and not to be scared of it but to see it as something exciting. Children have a natural curiosity about the [world] and why things work and don’t work, and it’s really important to nurture, culture and develop that. We have to influence parents, too, and wider society.”

Calmast sets sail

Donegan’s own background is in chemistry – she studied at University College Dublin before going to New York to do a PhD on nerve gas decontamination. “We were looking at different ways of getting the nerve gas sarin to dissolve and then hitting it with lasers so you could dispose of it very safely,” she explains.

She then moved to the slightly less hazardous area of developing new pigments for metallic paints, based at Forbairt (now Enterprise Ireland) in Glasnevin. Then in 1994 she moved to Waterford Institute of Technology to take up a lectureship in chemistry, where she has developed a research group in surface chemistry.

Towards the late 1990s, Donegan and Gill identified a fall off in interest in physical science and engineering courses at third level. “The problem was starting at second level, with students shying away from physics, chemistry and higher maths,” says Donegan.

They began working together to increase the overall pool prepared for science, engineering and computing, and WIT established Calmast in 2003.

Its first gig was to run a science festival as part of National Science Week, recalls Donegan, but she admits she was living on her nerves in the run up to it.

“Our very first event was to be a fun chemistry event with chemical reactions and explosions, but I was really afraid that nobody would come,” she recalls. “But we booked out completely, and that really showed us there was a huge appetite out there.”

Since then, Calmast has gone from strength to strength and now runs several initiatives, including Bealtaine Festival of Outdoor Science in May, which encourages people to explore the local natural heritage, and summer schools for primary and secondary children. 

Plus there is the annual Robert Boyle Summer School, a relatively new addition to the calendar named after local lad Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore in 1627 and happens to be considered the father of modern chemistry.  

“Ireland has so many literary summer schools but we realised there was nothing for science,” says Donegan. “So two years ago we set up the Robert Boyle summer school in Lismore in July to explore the position of science in our culture.”

Appetite for science and maths

The appetite for science and maths events in Ireland is huge, says Donegan, and over the years more schools have been getting on board with Maths Week. “Last year, we had 135,000 school pupils signed up through their teachers to take part in Maths Week,” she says. 

And for students who are interested in areas of science, technology, maths and engineering, her advice is to study what you enjoy and aim high. 

“As an economy, we need more people and more qualified people in the physical sciences, engineering, ICT, financial services and maths itself,” says Donegan. “Maths Week Ireland is making sure that we can deliver the needs of our recovering economy – we are doing this with the help of our corporate sponsors, and with more support we will be able to do so much more.”

Maths Week launch

Sean Sherlock, TD, Minister of State for Research and Innovation, with Eoin Gill and Dr Sheila Donegan, and students from St Brigids and St Marys schools in Dublin

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication