Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin on changing perceptions around STEM

29 Jan 2016

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. Photo via RTÉ.

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is filming a new comedy panel show about science, but that’s not the half of what she’s up to, as Claire O’Connell finds out.  

Many of us in Ireland will instantly recognise Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin from our TV screens. Her work on television and as a radio presenter has seen her carve out an accomplished career in media over the last decade, and when we meet she is excited about a new comedy science panel TV show she’s filming this week.

As well as that, in her work off air, Ní Shúilleabháin is a university lecturer, academic and science communicator, and her research on mathematics education could change how we teach the subject to future generations in Ireland.

Change is gonna come

“We have to change how we teach because we have to change how students learn,” explains Ní Shúilleabháin, who did her PhD at Trinity College Dublin on ways to bring more theory into the pedagogy, or teaching and learning, approaches of maths.

“We don’t need calculators, machines are doing those things, we need creative rational problem solvers, people who can justify their thinking, and who can hypothesise a solution but also explain the rationale and the logic behind it. So, instead of having one teacher standing up and doing an example and getting 10 students to do the same, that is not what we need any more. Now we need a classroom that engages in communication of thinking and it needs to be more social and really directed toward learning outcomes that build on others so you can scaffold the learning in a really constructive way.”

Now a lecturer in University College Dublin (UCD), Ní Shúilleabháin is teaching undergraduate maths pedagogy to science students and her research is looking to build a theoretical framework for maths teachers.

Challenging misconceptions

She is keen to challenge misconceptions around maths learning – including any notion that there might be a ‘maths gene’.

“There is no such thing,” she says. “There are people who work at it and who might find it a little bit easier, but that doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t have the capacity to perform at mathematics.”

However, studies show that women, in particular, can lack confidence around STEM, and especially in maths, she notes, and that girls, in general, prefer to understand why they are doing something rather than just learning it off.

‘There are people who work at it and who might find it a little bit easier, but that doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t have the capacity to perform at mathematics’

Ní Shúilleabháin knows about it first hand – when studying maths for the Leaving Certificate, she struggled to understand the trigonometric functions sin, cos and tan, but when she read a book that explained them more practically, it all fell into place.

“You could hear the penny drop,” she says. “It also happened when I went to university [to study theoretical physics at UCD] – I was seeing matrices being used for something, again, why didn’t they just explain that before?”

New looks at maths and physics

Through a Science Foundation Ireland Discover Award, Ní Shúilleabháin, who worked as a teacher before doing her PhD, will this year be looking to increase maths engagement through workshops in DEIS schools, which are generally located in disadvantaged communities and have a lower percentage of students progressing to third level.

“Students from DEIS schools are 40pc less likely to take honours maths, so I want to show them that maths is about being creative and discussing your thoughts and analysing why you do something, and that mathematicians are really creative people.”

Ní Shúilleabháin also helped to bring new perspectives on STEM to Dublin in the recent City of Physics initiative, which saw physics questions and phenomena displayed all around the city on public transport and buildings, and online.

“We found that 35pc of people in the city centre saw it and/or engaged with the physics in some way,” she says.

Things to know about on TV

Ní Shúilleabháin continues to have an active schedule in media – she is a co-presenter on 10 Things to Know About (formerly Science Squad) and one of her favourite assignments was a trip to Uganda to see how the RCSI Solar Water Disinfection programme project to disinfect water with sunlight was faring.

The research showed that placing water in plastic bottles in the sun could reduce the microbial load and, hence, help tackle the issue of water-borne diseases.

“They had found out simply because of using this approach to disinfect the water, school attendance rates had gone up three fold because the kids were not sick as often,” she says. “Doing this improved family quality of life and the educational experience for children.”

Science Squad recently won an award at the European Science TV and New Media Festival in Lisbon for its portrayal of women in science, and Ní Shúilleabháin will be flying the flag for women again in a new show on RTÉ2 this spring called Eureka: The Big Bang Query.

The panel show will see comedians and scientists banter about subjects such as friction, Boyle’s Law and even pulsars.

“I am learning loads,” she says. “And because I was on The Panel before, I understand that when you are up against comedians, you have to get in there and have your say.”

Potent mix of talents

Ní Shúilleabháin has also been in demand as a host for ceremonies, such as SciCom2015 and the gala dinner at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.

“I really enjoyed that, I got to interview [overall winners] Diana and Maria,” she says, noting that her academic and media skills combine well.

“I have been working in media for 10 years, and it’s nice to be able to bring that into academia and then bring my academic perspectives into my media work.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

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