Keeping magic of discovery alive is key to Ireland’s STEM future

1 Feb 2016

Passion for science is a life long journey that should survive college and careers

Science and technology are booming, but successful careers are driven by passion, not points, says John Kennedy.

Countries need to get the balance right between throwing students headfirst into a STEM career and, at the same time, opening the door to a broad, interesting and fulfilling life.

If you ever need cheering up at the start of a new year, if you want to be inspired or just need some affirmation that, in this crazy, unpredictable world, the future is in the hands of brilliant young people, just head down to the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition at the RDS during the first week of every January.

Or if you’ve missed that, look into bringing your child or niece or nephew to a nearby CoderDojo, if they are interested, of course. Only if they want to.

It is incredible to watch bright young minds figuring out the intricacies of science and technology and it is humbling to see the pride on their faces and the conviction in their eyes when they have solve a problem or invent something for the first time.

I’ve often wondered what happens to that spirit and enthusiasm and why, as a country, we just couldn’t bottle that magic. But people are not machines, they may create assembly lines and the products that run off them, but they are not designed to be predictable.

But I can’t shake my conviction that somewhere between those bright young minds and shining eyes soaking up information like sponges to the day they get their Leaving Cert results and first CAO offers, that magic is somehow scattered.

‘Why are so many kids qualifying for maths-related courses but not hacking it beyond first year in third level?’

Is it the learning by rote, plodding nature of the Irish exam system that does it, and is that system failing to keep that magic alive?

And now, as it becomes apparent to parents that careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – heck, let’s add the A for art and call it STEAM – are the future and that’s where the jobs are, that magic matters more than most. In January alone, some 2,775 STEM-related jobs were announced around the country, covering everything from app making to medtech.

My concern arises out of research from the Higher Education Authority last month that revealed up to 80pc of students in some maths-related courses are failing to progress beyond first year. Around, 6,500 students – one in six of all first years in higher education – did not progress to second year between 2012 and 2014.

This is alarming.

Quality over quantity

According to a report this morning (1 February), 29pc of jobs among Ireland’s workforce are in STEM-related roles.

So, STEAM careers have never been cooler and, with role models like Mark Zuckerberg, or more locally like the Collison brothers or this year’s EU Digital Girl of the Year Niamh Scanlon, now has never been a better time for kids and their parents to be interested in careers in this area.

This is a far cry from a decade ago, when all parents were interested in was getting their kids to study law or business. The irony now is a lot of the kids who did as they were told are most likely working abroad in Australia or Canada while many of the tech jobs back in Dublin or Cork are being filled by international talent attracted by the high pay rates and the quality of life in Ireland.

By all means, we need to encourage young people into STEM careers, but they have to want to do it themselves, too.

They have to be passionate about science, coding or engineering and we must not lose the magic that is their fascination with technology, chemistry, biology or whatever it is that excites them at a young age.

So we need to find out where the disconnects are.

Why are so many kids qualifying for maths-related courses but not hacking it beyond first year in third level?

I remember a former colleague of mine who studied computer science telling me that most of first year in university is spent re-learning maths.

Last week, an indigenous Irish tech firm called Movidius secured a multi-million dollar order from Google for its chips, which will put artificial intelligence and machine vision into future smartphones. At the heart of Movidius’ technology is linear algebra and fine-tuning software to keep pace with Moore’s Law. That very chip could go on to be Ireland’s version of the Pentium that could define the age of the internet of things.

Yes, folks, maths matters.

More than 50pc of Irish schools put entries into the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition this year. According to BT Ireland managing director Shay Walsh, this has been fuelled by the increase in take-up in honours subjects and the extra bonus points for honours maths.

But, still, something needs to be fixed to arrest those high drop-out rates.

Across the world, jobs are being created in STEM at an unprecedented rate. There are an estimated 700,000 ICT job vacancies across Europe. According to Apple, the sheer amount of economic activity generated by its App Store in terms of software development jobs, software businesses and all the jobs that support them, has created some 1.2m jobs in Europe, 1.6m in the US and more than 1.4m in China.

In an interview with Facebook’s director of global platform partnerships Julien Codorniou recently, he told me that the Facebook platform generates $29bn of economic activity every year and has created 600,000 jobs.

All of that is encouraging. But every life is unique and every career matters. Just because tech is where it is at, people who feel compelled to join the industry have to do so for the right reasons. Not because they are being told to. They have to see it with their own eyes and ask themselves, can I do this?

Countries like Ireland and the UK that are striving to profit as much as possible from this STEM revolution and be the next Silicon Valley will be hoisted on their respective petards if the quality of graduates fails to live up to the expectations of employers.

We need to join the dots and remove the disconnects from where a person has a healthy enthusiasm or curiosity for STEM that will carry them through college and life and figure out precisely what happens in those vital years that involve dull by-rote learning for Leaving Cert exams and getting coveted CAO places they may not keep.

Industry has a role to play

There is another problem. On a recent radio item, I heard recruiters respond to a parent’s question about their recently graduated child finding it hard to get a job in the tech industry. The recruiters responded that this was due to experience and countries like India that have vast military and nuclear programmes soak up graduates in their thousands, producing vast numbers of qualified, experienced and talented engineers who eventually come to Silicon Valley or Europe.

The old adage that you can’t get a job without experience, you can’t get experience without a job, is particularly true in the STEM career space.

Perhaps there is a role for industry and academia to not only foster quality graduates but ensure they are experienced through placement by the time they enter the workforce. Is there more that can be done to open kids’ eyes to what these careers look like before they fill out a CAO form?

This could be a way to keep the magic alive and help people figure out early on if a career in STEM is the right fit for them.

Another problem of the time we are in is why few girls go on to careers in STEM, despite it being so obvious at the BT Young Scientist event that more girls than boys take part each year.

One company that has taken an interesting approach to the situation is Accenture, which invited 1,800 girls across the UK and Ireland to participate in special one-day events for Girls in STEM. It held an event in Dublin last week attended by 500 girls from across Ireland. According to research from Accenture, although 80pc of girls and young women believe that studying STEM subjects leads to good career opportunities, almost half (48pc) think that these subjects are more suited to male careers, with 29pc believing that they “fit boys’ brains better”.

So what’s going on? Where do the numbers stray and girls get this idea that STEM is not for them? Is it down to career guidance? Their parents? Public norms and attitudes? The by-rote nature of Irish education?

Memorising something to regurgitate in an exam solely for CAO points doesn’t make you especially clever. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can solve problems. It simply means you can remember stuff.

Spending time figuring something out, pouring your passion into something you believe in or are curious about does.

And therein lies the magic of discovery.

Discovery image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years