How SciFest inspires students to put STEM into action

20 Feb 2018

Sheila Porter, founder and CEO of SciFest. Image: Shane O’Neill/SON Photographic

Sheila Porter tells us the story behind SciFest and how the science fair continues to champion diversity in STEM education.

Sheila Porter is founder and CEO of SciFest, a science programme that is now in its 10th year.

As a science teacher, Porter recognised the importance of science-fair participation in encouraging students to develop a love of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and in generating a spirit of inquiry, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Having run two successful pilots in Dublin, SciFest was launched nationwide in 2008. SciFest is now managed by a not-for-profit company, SciFest Ltd, funded primarily by the SFI Discover Programme, Intel Ireland and Boston Scientific. The project has grown rapidly, with more than 10,000 students presenting more than 4,400 projects across 88 SciFest STEM fairs at local, regional and national level in 2017.

In 1998, 2000 and 2004, Porter received the Intel Ireland Educator of Excellence award at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) and, in 2004, she was awarded the British Council Science Travel award. In 2015, she was named the PharmaChemical Ireland Science Educator of the Year by the Irish Science Teachers’ Association.

The closing date for entries to SciFest@College 2018 is Friday 9 March, except in the case of SciFest@NorthWest in St Mary’s College, Derry, where the entry date is Friday 11 May.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role and day are very varied. One day, I could be driving to Cork to judge at a SciFest@School, or another heading to Limerick to attend a regional SciFest@College event. This is the part of the role I enjoy most: interacting with students and teachers, learning about the challenges they face, and trying to develop tools and resources to help them overcome these challenges. Other days, I can be found at my desk planning an event, preparing resources and engaging with our stakeholders, partners and sponsors.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am a firm believer in an early start; getting a jump on the day’s work before the rest of the world wakes up (and the emails start coming in!). With no two days being the same, a certain amount of flexibility is required. I have a running to-do list and I get great satisfaction out of ticking off tasks as I do them during the day. The one thing I have to remember to do is take a break – I find it very easy to get immersed in my work but very difficult to stop. One of the disadvantages of working from home is that it’s always tempting to return to the office to finish that one last job.

I took time out from my teaching career when my three children were young, and feel very lucky that I was able to do so. For me, it was the right thing to do and it gave me the opportunity to take stock of what was important to me. I did do a number of part-time jobs during that period to keep me up to date with what was happening in the STEM education field before returning to full-time teaching after 10 years. Nowadays, family still comes first as I try to juggle my passion for all things SciFest and allow time for my other interests – gardening, reading, travelling and, of course, my nine beautiful grandchildren!

‘I admire independent-minded women who blaze their own trail and believe anything’s possible’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

As a charity, our biggest challenge is sourcing sufficient funds to meet the demands of an increasingly popular programme. To maintain the current average annual growth rate in participation of 23pc, additional funding is always needed.

The core team working on SciFest is small. It consists of myself, my husband George and three part-time employees. In January of this year, we received additional funding from Science Foundation Ireland to cover the cost of employing a full-time project manager with expertise in fundraising. This is a very important development as it will take SciFest to the next level and put the programme on a more sustainable basis. SciFest is constantly evolving and I am looking forward to not only having more time to focus on developing the programme, but also to working with somebody new who will come with their own unique skills, a fresh perspective and lots of ideas.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

In recent years, Government policy has placed greater emphasis on the importance of STEM education. This recognises the critical contribution STEM makes to the continued development of an economy and a society that embraces technological advances, and enables Ireland to develop to its full potential as a country with an international reputation for having a highly educated citizenry and a proactive approach to technological development.

SciFest supports this policy by promoting the development of scientific literacy, encouraging creativity and innovation in STEM, supporting the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and encouraging the uptake of the STEM subjects. The SciFest programme is also very much aligned with the Department of Education and Skills’ school curriculum for science and maths, emphasising hands-on activities and inquiry-based learning. It also supports Government strategy to build partnership and understanding between education and enterprise.

An important aspect of SciFest is that the regional STEM fairs are hosted by the fourteen institutes of technology, Dublin City University (DCU) and St Mary’s College in Derry. This provides students with an opportunity to visit their local third-level college, view the facilities and learn about the courses available, thus encouraging them to continue their STEM education into third level. This support is particularly valuable for a cohort of students who have no experience of third level and for female students who are seen as less likely to consider a career in STEM.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

As a science teacher, I always encouraged students to think outside the box, take charge of their own learning and get involved in STEM activities outside the classroom. Working with students in this way allowed for a very different kind of interaction, inspiring them and me to experience real-world STEM in action. It also helped build a relationship with the students, which translated in a positive way to the classroom experience.

As part of this approach, I encouraged students to participate in the numerous competitions that were available at the time, including the BTYSTE, the RDS Young Science Writers’ Competition and the Sentinus Northern Ireland Young Scientist. Being involved opened numerous opportunities not only for the students, but also for me.

One of the spin-offs was attending the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Educator Academy in the US. There, I met educators from all over the world and began to formulate a plan for a free-to-enter STEM fair programme that would enable every second-level student in Ireland, whatever their background, circumstances or intellectual ability, to have the opportunity to participate in a science fair.

In 2005, I approached Dr Brian Murray, a chemistry lecturer in the Institute of Technology Tallaght, with an idea for a science fair, and the first SciFest fair took place there in 2006. In 2008, after two very successful pilot fairs in IT Tallaght, I was seconded to Intel, supported by Discover Science and Engineering, to replicate the model throughout Ireland. This was an exciting opportunity for me as it allowed me to experience what it was like to work in an industry setting.

The SciFest programme grew at a phenomenal rate and, by the time my five years’ secondment ended, SciFest STEM fairs were running at local, regional and national level. I decided not to return to teaching and so, in 2012, partnered by my husband George (who also has a background in STEM education), I set up SciFest as a not-for-profit company with charitable status. The board is representative of education and industry, and we are fortunate to have Prof Brian MacCraith, president of DCU, as the chair.

Today, SciFest is the largest science-fair programme in Ireland. Being locally and regionally based, open to all, and free to enter, it is both uniquely diverse and inclusive. The programme continues to grow and evolve. Last year, SciFest joined Gaisce – The President’s Award – as a Challenge Partner, and the inaugural SciFest@TCPID (Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities) was held in the Science Gallery. SciFest was also represented at Intel ISEF 2017 in Los Angeles by Caolann Brady, who came away with a second-place award, bringing the total number of awards won by SciFest students at Intel ISEF to eight in six years.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I don’t know that there’s a mistake I’ve made that particularly stands out. In general, I’d advise my younger self that 40 is still young, to be assertive and believe in yourself, and to delegate where possible – don’t try to do everything yourself! I am a bit of a perfectionist and like my world to be organised. I have learned over the years that life will go on even if the hoovering hasn’t been done.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Saying thank you and expressing appreciation. To me, the SciFest team extends beyond my husband, myself and our part-time colleagues. It includes the SciFest regional coordinators and their support panels, the judges, the teachers, the partners and sponsors, and the numerous volunteers who help at the various events throughout the year. Without the dedication and the generosity of all these people, SciFest would not be possible. I think it’s important to share happenings, success stories and future plans through regular updates, publishing a quarterly ezine and being active on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr.

‘SciFest affords girls an equal opportunity to participate in a local, stereotype-free, non-threatening environment. They blossom, grow in confidence, develop their skills and become aware of the variety of exciting careers available’

Each SciFest STEM fair is basically the same but also has unique qualities, depending on the venue and the coordinator. This, and the fact that the fair is taking place in a school or the local third-level college, promotes a sense of ownership. Each and every person involved in SciFest is dedicated to promoting STEM.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

Success in the global marketplace depends on innovation, research and creativity. Students of all abilities and backgrounds are encouraged to participate in SciFest, bringing the talents of diverse populations into the innovation pipeline. A diverse population introduces fresh perspectives and new ideas, and I think it is uplifting to see students from different backgrounds and cultures sharing experiences and working together on their SciFest projects.

I am conscious of the fact that women are still significantly underrepresented in STEM careers. SciFest affords girls an equal opportunity to participate in a local, stereotype-free, non-threatening environment. They blossom, grow in confidence, develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and, equally importantly, become aware of the variety of exciting careers available to a person with a STEM qualification.

We ensure that female students receive at least equal recognition in our ezines, photo albums on Flickr and on the website. The outcome as regards participation in SciFest is encouraging. Looking at the numbers and distribution of awards by gender in SciFest, it becomes obvious that girls, when given the opportunity to participate in STEM, perform as well, or indeed better, than their male counterparts. More than 60pc of the participating students at regional and national level in 2017 were female. Gradually, we are building up a cohort of positive female role models and potential mentors. These alumnae will serve to inspire and motivate second-level students to pursue the STEM subjects into third level and as a possible career choice.

Who is your role model and why?

I don’t have any particular person who I would consider a role model but there have been many women and men throughout my working life who have inspired me in different ways. I admire independent-minded women who blaze their own trail and believe anything’s possible. We live in an age where you can be true to yourself if you just give yourself permission to do so.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I have always been an avid reader and I am never without a book. My family bought me a Kindle a couple of years ago and I now just go from one book to the next with no break in between. I do miss the feel of a real book and occasionally indulge, but it is very easy to be able to read a review and instantly download the book to your Kindle.

I love travelling and like it when a book is set in a place that I have visited and can relate to. I would recommend First They Killed My Father followed by After They Killed Our Father by Loung Ung. Both are very inspiring reads. I also enjoy crime novels and loved the Quirke series of books by John Banville (Benjamin Black). 

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I rely a lot on technologies that enable me to communicate with my colleagues in the schools and colleges. I’m very active on behalf of SciFest on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. It’s a great way to spread the word about what’s happening at a certain moment in time. I love the fact that I can communicate instantly by Skype, Viber and WhatsApp.

We are currently collaborating with the Rossier School of Education in the University of Southern California – this would be impossible without access to modern communication technologies. I also love taking photographs and I’m never without my camera at the ready, to capture all the excitement at SciFest events. These then find their way onto my various social platforms.

(I also couldn’t get through the day without copious amounts of Barry’s Tea!)

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.