How can we ignite the STEM spark at primary school?

6 Apr 2018

Dr Maeve Liston, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Image: Dr Maeve Liston

Dr Maeve Liston is looking to boost scientific thinking among primary school students. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Think back: was there teacher in your school who inspired your interest in how the world works? Or maybe some of your fondest memories of learning were those glorious mornings when the teacher announced you would be going on a ‘nature walk’?

With the right approach, a teacher can have a positive and lifelong impact on how students think about science.

That’s why Dr Maeve Liston is on a mission to help teachers and parents to ensure that young students engage with science and technology at primary school, and develop problem-solving skills and scientific literacy that will stand to them no matter what they go on to study later.

Think like a scientist

“It is all about thinking and acting like a scientist rather than getting the answer right,” explained Liston, a senior lecturer in science education at Mary Immaculate College (MIC) in Limerick.

“We want children to get out of the way of thinking that science is difficult or that it lacks creativity, and instead be able to say to themselves, ‘I can solve a problem, I know how to do this.’

“By doing activities in the classroom, the students can understand what STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] is all about and, whether or not they go on to study those subjects later at second and third level, they will have those skills for life.”

Inspiring confidence

While science is a part of the primary curriculum in Ireland, there are plenty of teachers who have not received formal science education, according to Liston, who is keen to work with them and increase their confidence around STEM subjects and skills.

Liston and colleagues run in-demand professional development courses for existing teachers, and they teach current students at MIC about science education to keeping building confidence in the pipeline of future teachers.

They also develop and test out new approaches to integrating more science and technology into teaching and learning.

The group recently ran robotics workshops that can be used for teaching about technology, maths, art and even drama in the classroom, and a current project is bringing artists and scientists in to schools to encourage teachers and students to think about science and creativity.

There’s plenty of opportunity beyond the classroom, too, such as CoderDojo, the RDS Primary Science Fair and specific workshops developed for parents to learn about science with their kids.

“We look at encouraging long-term interests and understanding of science with children, teachers and parents,” said Liston.

Heart in teaching

Liston’s own career started in teaching, as she studied education with chemistry and biology to become a second-level science teacher.

From there, she moved into the lab and did a PhD at the University of Limerick (UL) on the fungi that associate with various plants in the Burren, before being drawn back into teaching as a lecturer at UL and then as projects officer in the National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and Learning. “My heart was in teaching,” she said.

Now at MIC, her roles as senior lecturer and as director of community enterprise and engagement see her working with teachers, students and parents, and linking in with industry, educational institutions and community groups who can work together. “There is such a buzz and excitement about what we do – I love it,” she said.

Keep asking questions

So, what advice does Liston have for parents of young children to encourage that love of finding things out?

“Children are always asking, ‘Why?’ and we should encourage them to keep doing that, get them to open their eyes, look at the details of things around them, see the colours, ask what things are made of and how they work,” she said.

“Ignite a spark so they develop that sense of wonder, and it should never leave them.”

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