The importance of STEM education goes beyond building a workforce

12 Jul 2021

Image: Dr Cornelia Connolly

STEM education researcher Dr Cornelia Connolly speaks to the invaluable nature of computer science education and the importance of diversity and equality throughout.

Both as an educator and researcher, Dr Cornelia Connolly’s interests centre on STEM education – particularly the T for technology.

In 2016, she was one of two people co-opted by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to design and develop the Leaving Certificate computer science specification. She also led the development of NUI Galway’s bachelor’s degree programme in computer science and mathematical education, the first programme of its kind in the Irish educational system.

In the early noughties, while completing a master’s of engineering through research at the University of Limerick, Connolly found she was the only woman postgraduate in the entire department.

This experience spurred a drive for diversity in STEM through education which can be seen throughout Connolly’s work both as a lecturer in NUI Galway’s School of Education and as a researcher at Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) software research centre.

‘Researching, creating and designing for equality and fairness throughout the computer science education ecosystem requires interventions in both culture and practices’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

The projects I become involved in are inspiring to me; cutting-edge innovative approaches to teaching, learning and education in general.

I think one of my first research projects, completed during undergraduate studies, was to develop an image compression software application – to code my own version of JPEG which compressed and decompressed specific areas of an image. In completing that project my patience, initiative and resilience was challenged, but the satisfaction in completing the project was hugely satisfying.

My research is always driven by satisfaction and my enjoyment derived from a passion to enquire and learn.

What research are you currently working on?

At an international level I work with colleagues leading the EU H2020-funded projects Building Research Infrastructures for School Teachers (BRIST) and Computational Thinking and Mathematical Thinking: Digital Literacy in Mathematics Curricula. Both of these projects are advancing the design of innovative technologies and approaches to enhance teacher research in Ireland and Europe aligned to Lero’s research programme.

I am also leading the SFI Discover CodePlus project at NUI Galway. It is a national project in partnership with Trinity College Dublin, University of Limerick and Lero. CodePlus aims to help address the gender imbalance in third-level computer science and to encourage girls and young women in secondary school to engage with computer science and ICT. The project aims to target over 10,000 young girls nationally during the two years in workshops and CS presentations with industry.

I am also principal investigator on the Bridging Worlds: New Learning Spaces for New Times project, which aims to bridge the gap between formal and non-formal learning context and space. Funded by Rethink Ireland, this project was conceptualised as a wrap-around model to support teachers and youth workers with a shared focus on the quality of all young people’s learning.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

STEM education now offers young people the opportunity to move away from being passive users to becoming designers of computer systems and applications. By better understanding and improving education, we can support improvements in learning and thinking, and thereby design integrated computer science and STEM experiences more effectively. Creativity, problem-solving and computational thinking have become invaluable competencies and important beyond ensuring that we have enough skilled workers.

One area I am passionate about is diversity in computer science education. Diversity is a fact of nature and society, but it’s often ignored in the design of software and it’s a large issue in the computing and technology sector. Computing and automation can actually work great for the normal, typical and average cases, but diversity guarantees that it also functions well for atypical or less common situations. Researching, creating and designing for equality and fairness throughout the computer science education ecosystem requires interventions in both culture and practices.

‘Teacher research’ is also growing in importance. Now, perhaps more than ever, teachers, teacher educators and lecturers all need the perspective and support of research-led practice. We have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic how to effectively use new blended models of educational technologies to mediate and enhance teaching, learning and assessment, which originates from research that has been tried and tested.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

My research focusses on improving the quality and accessibility of computer science education and STEM education more widely. While this naturally applies across the public education system with impacts at second and third level, it could also be used to inform the development of more inclusive educational technologies in industry and healthcare, for example.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an education researcher?

Diversity in computer science education is a major challenge but so is creating a sustainable educational future.

We have seen, during the pandemic in particular, that there is a visible digital divide. But what is perhaps more apparent is the ‘digital-use divide’. Educators need to lead a change of approach because access does not necessarily ensure participation.

We as researchers need to better theorise the links between the developments in technology, inequality and education while also striving to actively design technologies that facilitate a fairer future for all.

Are there any common misconceptions about education research?

The role of research is not just what we teach and learn, but also how we teach and learn, and the role of diversity in forming and informing the content and context around both.

Misconceptions exist regarding capacity for and access to STEM education and computer science more generally. We need to continually address and improve the practices or pedagogies necessary for educational technology design.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Recent experiences in emergency remote teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic have demonstrated the opportunities but also the limitations of technology in education. And we must remember, the relationship between technology and education has always been complex. While embracing the many opportunities, there remains limitations to how education technology and digital education can transform education opportunities and outcomes for all in society.

Computing is powerful, but we must recognise that it cannot solve every problem. It is often wrong. Its algorithms are not neutral. Most computing activity, one might say, is situated in a default view of ongoing growth as both reachable and desirable. However, such focus may be problematic in terms of climate, societal and sustainability challenges and I think we need to be more mindful of this. We need to research and promote forms of digital education and educational practices that are best suited for a resource-constrained planet and which are concerned with education technology ‘finiteness’.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.