OPINION: It’s time to get serious about STEM education in Ireland
Dublin City University president and chair of the STEM Education Review Group Prof Brian MacCraith addresses Silicon Republic's recent Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin

OPINION: It’s time to get serious about STEM education in Ireland

19 Nov 2014

In the final of our series of columns from Royal Irish Academy members, Prof Brian MacCraith says we can no longer delay when it comes to ensuring STEM education in Ireland is of the highest international quality.

To coincide with Science Week, members of the Royal Irish Academy have been sharing their thoughts on various issues within and outside of the classroom that Ireland needs to focus on to position itself as a learning and learned 21st-century society. We round up this series with a column from Prof Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University (DCU) and chair of the STEM Education Review Group.

For many reasons, it is essential that all stakeholders (Government, educators, enterprise) aim to ensure that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Ireland is of the highest international quality. These reasons include the intrinsic educational benefits, economic imperatives and the need for well-informed democratic processes:

  • Stimulating curiosity and fostering a sense of wonder are essential elements of educating our students from the earliest years. Science and mathematics provide answers to the fundamental questions of nature and enable us to understand the world around us. STEM disciplines of knowledge are the ones by which we understand, measure, design and advance our physical world.
  • Expertise in STEM subjects is necessary to drive our economic ambitions and provide the foundations for future prosperity. Knowledge-based economies, such as Ireland, are particularly dependent on the quality and quantity of STEM graduates.
  • Modern democracies, such as Ireland, need scientifically literate citizens in order to make well-informed decisions regarding major global issues, such as climate change, sustainability, energy, and food security.

With these reasons in mind, the then-Minister for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, TD, established a STEM Education Review Group in November 2013 to carry out a comprehensive review of STEM education in Ireland, with a particular focus on primary and post-primary education.

I have the privilege of chairing the Review Group appointed by the minister to carry out this work. The Review Group will complete its work in the coming weeks and will submit its report to the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, TD, before Christmas. O’Sullivan has expressed strong interest in the recommendations that will be contained in the report.

Focus of STEM Education Review Group

Given the multi-faceted nature of STEM education, the multiplicity of disciplines involved, and the importance of producing a report in a timely manner, it was necessary to focus the efforts of the Review Group on those topics that were deemed central to a high-quality STEM education system.  

The Review Group also recognised that a number of important STEM initiatives were already under way (eg, Project Maths and CoderDojo clubs) or were well-established (eg, SciFest and the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition) and that other potentially important developments were evolving (such as Junior Cycle Reform). Bearing all these in mind, the STEM Review Group decided to focus on the following:

  • The preparation of teachers (at first and second Level) for STEM education (so-called Initial Teacher Education).
  • The best methods of supporting the current cohort of STEM teachers within the system, with a particular focus on comprehensive and sustained continuing professional development (CPD) programmes.
  • The introduction of new teaching and learning modalities that would enhance STEM education in our schools and for which there was a strong evidence base (such as inquiry-based and problem-based learning approaches, and new assessment modalities).
  • The use of technology to enhance learning (especially digital and/or online approaches).
  • The promotion of STEM careers and the identification of methods to enhance the engagement of students in STEM subjects.

One could summarise the ‘Terms of Reference’ above as reflecting a clear focus on teacher quality (“the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers”), new pedagogical approaches (including assessment for learning) and the broad issue of awareness of STEM careers and opportunities. In itself, that selection (after significant deliberation) points to some of the key underlying issues that must be addressed in order to enhance STEM education in Ireland significantly and sustainably.

Approach and outcomes

The approach adopted by the STEM Review Group to the task given to it was to combine detailed research by members of the group with widespread consultation (both written and face-to-face) with various stakeholders and experts.

Furthermore, an audit of current STEM education activities (such as CPD) countrywide was carried out and relevant data were gathered regarding some of the key issues. While it would be inappropriate to divulge any outcomes or anticipate the recommendations of the report at this stage, it is instructive to highlight some of the issues that have been the focus of particular deliberation by the group:

  • The importance of considering all elements of STEM, not just science disciplines and mathematics.
  • Should teachers of specific STEM disciplines be ‘generalists’ or specialists in that discipline?
  • How can we best involve and educate parents (as primary influencers) in the promotion of STEM careers?
  • How should we address effectively the gender imbalance in certain STEM careers and degree programmes?
  • Is it helpful, or a dilution of focus, to shift the emphasis from STEM to STEAM (where A stands for arts)?
  • Given the central role of mathematics in many aspects of STEM education and related careers, how can we enhance quality of learning in this discipline?

Whatever the specific recommendations in the report, one thing is abundantly clear at this stage: that enhancing STEM education in Ireland is a critical, multi-faceted issue and requires serious engagement and investment from all stakeholders.

Prof Brian MacCraith is president of Dublin City University and chair of the STEM Education Review Group*. MacCraith holds a personal chair in physics at DCU and is renowned internationally for his research on optical chemical sensors and biosensors. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), a fellow of the Institute of Physics, a fellow of SPIE (the international photonics organisation), and a fellow of the Irish Academy of Engineers. MacCraith has had a substantial involvement in STEM education activities through membership of the Institute of Physics Education Subgroup, the RIA National Commission for the Teaching of Physics, and various DCU committees dealing with this topic.

*Membership of the STEM Education Review Group: Dr Thérese Dooley, senior lecturer in mathematics education, St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra; Prof John O’Donoghue, NCE-MSTL, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Limerick; Bill Kearney, director, Dublin Lab, IBM Software Group; Dr Pádraig O’Murchú, education and research manager, Intel; Anna Walshe, education officer, NCCA; Seán MacCormaic, chair of the Irish Maths Teachers Association; Prof Brian MacCraith MRIA, president, DCU.

The Royal Irish Academy is an all-island independent body that brings together the worlds of academia, government and industry, to address issues of mutual interest. Drawing on its members’ expertise, it contributes to public debate and public policy formation on issues in the humanities, science, technology and culture. Election to membership of the academy represents the highest academic honour in Ireland.

The views and opinions expressed by authors in this series are their own and do not reflect the position of the academy. They are simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse academy membership.

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