Meet the science teacher helping students prep for exams on TikTok

17 May 2024

Image: Tadgh O'Donovan

Nearly at 400,000 followers on TikTok now, Tadgh O’Donovan wants to meet young people where they tend to spend most of their time and offer them a role model to hone a passion for science subjects.

Five years ago, when Tadgh O’Donovan first moved to the UK for work – as many young Irish school teachers do – he had no interest in social media. A native of Bandon in Co Cork, O’Donovan barely used Instagram and says he had no idea what TikTok was.

Today, he has become somewhat of a posterchild for Irish creator success on TikTok. With more than 26m likes and nearly 400,000 followers on the platform popular with younger audiences, O’Donovan (better known by his account handle @TeachWithTadgh) is on a mission to get secondary school students interested in STEM subjects.

So how did a camera-shy teaching graduate from the University of Limerick (UL) go on to become a social media influencer? O’Donovan, now a teacher at Carrigaline Community School just outside Cork, tells me his journey traces back to the pandemic.

“When that first lockdown happened over in the UK, overnight all our students were at home and not linking with school in any way other than Google Classroom,” he said, adding that students from underprivileged backgrounds tended to be most detached from classes.

Through conversations with students and their parents, he soon realised that they spent a considerable amount of time watching TikTok – sometimes even during online classes.

“And I was kind of going, ‘why am I doing stuff on Google Classroom when these kids aren’t watching or looking at anything I’m doing on Google Classroom?’ So I just started making some TikToks, just for the absolute craic! That’s literally how we started.

“I was like, look, I’ll just be a friendly face that they will remember. Some of this stuff I can do inside in the classroom, maybe make a few science-related ones. And hopefully they’ll see them and pick up on them and have, you know, someone to brighten their day.”

TikTok for good

Once he started making his often-humorous videos about science-related topics, there was no turning back for this budding influencer. Students started coming up to him and saying how much they enjoyed his TikToks, and the rest is history.

TikTok has come under fire recently for creating programmes and algorithms that European regulators see as addictive to children. Just last month, the EU threatened the TikTok Lite app with a ban under the Digital Services Act following concerns that its so-called ‘task and reward’ feature could cause serious damage to mental health, particularly in children.

But the social media platform owned by Beijing-based ByteDance has been making an effort to promote more positive content, such as programmes to get younger audiences interested in education. For example, it launched a new feed dedicated to STEM in Ireland and the UK.

Part of a wider introduction of the feed in Europe, the STEM feed was first launched in the US last year. TikTok claims this has seen STEM content grow by 24pc with one-third of teens visiting the feed “on a weekly basis”. Ireland and the UK are the first two European markets TikTok is launching the feed in.

“We believe discovery is essential to the TikTok experience, and we’re always looking to help our community uncover new and relevant content through introducing new and exciting formats,” Marlène Masure, general manager for operations at TikTok EMEA, said last month.

“We hope the launch of the STEM feed across Europe will inspire a new generation of engineers, mathematicians and science enthusiasts.”

According to the company, nearly 15m STEM-related videos have been published on the app globally in the last three years. Users under 18 will have the new feed turned on by default while adults can opt into the feed through settings.

Thanks to this effort, creators such as Donovan, Captain Mark Maguire and others have the chance to reach wider audiences and meet young people where they spend their a lot of their time – especially now that the Leaving Cert is less than three weeks away.

Honing a passion for science

Other than his TikTok videoes, which cover everything from everyday school life and science concepts to even promos for boxing matches with other creators to raise funding for his local boxing club, O’Donovan also conducts regular livestreams that students join to learn STEM concepts – which he claims are viewed by an average of 10,000 students per hour.

“There are always around 300 to 350 students in the live constantly, for the entire hour,” he tells me. “I find that absolutely insane, that there are that many kids, whether it’s in Ireland or the UK or further afield, that are looking for that kind of help and that come in every week.”

A strong believer in the importance of having strong role models – as his dad was to him when growing up boxing in the local club – O’Donovan hopes that his influence through social media can help those who are in need of the right direction to have someone to look up to.

“I can only teach so many kids inside the classroom. But if I can help more kids out there learn and become so passionate about science, then that’s my way of giving back to the community. You know how it is, if you have a science teacher that you don’t like, you fall out of love with the subject very quickly,” he says.

“Science is one of those subjects that if you enjoy the teacher, you will find something about the subject that you love, and you’ll stick with it. I want to keep encouraging as many kids as possible to go into STEM and to be in STEM in some sort of way. I want to keep that enthusiasm and that love of science, regardless of who your teacher, through my live lessons.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic