Teachers give science initiative top marks

29 Jul 2004

If children are our future it must follow that the teachers who advise them on careers and spark their interest in particular areas of study have a hugely influential role to play. This is the premise behind a new initiative launched by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) last week.

Through the Stars (Science Teachers Assistant Researchers) programme, teachers conduct research alongside an SFI-funded researcher or research team. The research partnership lasts six to eight weeks and takes place during school holidays over a 12-month period. Teachers are paid the equivalent of two months’ salary for their participation in the programme.

Some 30 teachers from all over the country are taking part in the first Stars programme and – according to a spokesperson for the SFI – it is envisaged that this number will grow to 60 next year and 90 the year after.

The composition of the group who gathered last week at the SFI’s headquarters in Dublin for the official launch made for interesting analysis. Only two of the teachers were from Dublin. There were more women than men (17 to 13), surprising perhaps for what is traditionally a male-dominated discipline. The age profile was another surprise. Most of the participants were either in their 20s or over 40. This is perhaps explained by the fact that the teachers least likely to give up their school holidays are thirtysomethings with young children. Although the project allows teachers to split the work over summer, mid-term, Christmas and Easter holidays, giving them more childcare options, teachers with young children were clearly still under-represented in the inaugural Stars group.

You might wonder what such relatively short research collaborations can achieve but as each of the teachers spoke in turn about their experiences and then researchers chipped in with their own observations, it became clear to this reporter that the Stars programme is far from an ‘academic’ exercise.

For starters, the teachers are not going back into the lab as mere observers; to a man and woman they seem to have become deeply immersed in their projects and showed the drive and enthusiasm that any research leader would value in a team member.

As a breed, science teachers possess an innate curiosity and Stars gives them a unique opportunity to probe new areas of study. Tony O’Rourke, a physics teacher from Ballymahon Secondary School in Co Longford, who teamed up with Dr John Murphy, a physicist at NUI Maynooth, was able to gain a deeper understanding of astronomy and the role that computer hardware and software now play in that area of science. Armed with this new-found knowledge, he intends to set up an Astronomy Club at his school and also plans to take his students back to Maynooth on a field trip.

“Until this programme started, there were no links between the school and the university. Now my Leaving Cert students will be able to go to Maynooth in October and they’ll get to do experiments using data sent from telescopes on the other side of the world,” he enthused.

The teachers clearly also got a kick out of going back to college after several years of teaching and, in particular, seeing how technology had moved on in the meantime. Jim McManus, who takes up a new teaching post at Cisterican College Roscrea, Co Tipperary in September, is working with Professor Martin Caffrey of the University of Limerick’s Biosciences Department on a protein analysis project. “To get back into the lab and do things again that I’d forgotten about, as well as experience the latest technology, has been really great,” he concluded.

For Lisa Kiely of Castletroy College in Co Limerick, the appeal of the programme lay in the prospect of finding out more about computer science, an area with which she was unfamiliar but which many of her students were showing an interest. “It’s been a real eye-opener for me to see how broad the computer science area is. I visited Intel and other companies in the Shannon region. One of the best things about the programme is that it gives teachers the ability to make contacts within the university.” Kiely, along with fellow Castletroy College teacher Helen Ryan, worked alongside renowned software experts Professors Kevin Ryan and Professor Brian Fitzgerald, respectively, at UL.

The personal satisfaction felt by teachers is important but it is only one element of what the SFI hopes the programme will achieve. What is more critical in the long run is that teachers pass their enthusiasm on to students and kindle their interest in science. A number of the teachers we spoke to were planning to do just that.

John Sims of Doolin Secondary School in Co Clare, as part of a project headed by Professor Stewart Fotheringham at the newly constructed National Centre for Geocomputation at NUI Maynooth, will develop 3D maps of Irish census data using geographical information system (GIS) software. He plans to take these skills back with him to his students at Doolin and to share his understanding of GIS with geography and science teachers throughout Ireland.

It is implicit in the Stars programme that the contacts established do not lapse once the programme has ended. Participants offered a number of suggestions for how these contacts could be sustained and nourished. Professor John Boland of Trinity College Dublin spoke of the need “to build a mechanism to make sure that it’s not just a one-off thing” and proposed establishing placement schemes for school students at universities on the back of the programme.

While Dublin City University’s Professor Brian MacCraith saw the transition year as a good time within the secondary cycle to establish such internships, Professor Stephen Fahy from the National Microelectronics Research Centre at Universiyt College Cork felt that even transition year was too late. “There’s a huge need to engage with students at primary level. If we could establish a similar programme [to Stars] with primary school teachers, it would help a lot in developing the new primary-school science curriculum.”

Thanking all of the teachers and academics for their support for Stars, William Harris, director general of SFI, made it clear that Stars was an essential part of his mission to turn Ireland into a nation of scientists. “One of the reasons we started this is that we realised that if we don’t build interest in science in primary and secondary schools we’re going to fail,” he said.

Ultimately, the success of the Stars programme will not be judged by teachers, researchers or SFI. The proof of the pudding will be whether, five or 10 years from now, more schoolchildren are taking science courses and science itself has lost its somewhat nerdy image.

Fotheringham summed up the challenge facing Stars and programmes like it: “School children need to be aware that science is exciting. Somehow science has got to change to allow kids to see the connection with the real world.”

By Brian Skelly

Pictured at the launch of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Stars programme were (from left): Professor Brian MacCraith, Dublin City University (DCU); Dr William Harris, director general, SFI; Jacqueline Harrison, teacher, Mount Carmel Secondary School, Dublin; and Emma O’Brian, education development manager, National Centre for Sensor Research, DCU