Is there an engineering and maths skills deficit?

Stem in Ireland: The supply of talented and high-skilled Stem workers has not kept pace with the needs of industry

 

In classrooms around the country, primary schoolchildren are making prosthetic limbs. Others are growing bacteria and examining it under a microscope while, elsewhere, hula-hoops and Morse code are helping them to learn about maths and computing.

These initiatives are all part of a programme run by Steam Education, a company made up of people from backgrounds in industry, academia and youth education, which aims to address the shortfall of highly qualified science, technology, engineering and maths graduates. The “a” in the title Steam stands for arts and it addresses the fact that Stem graduates increasingly need to work with arts graduates to consider problems such as how best technology can be employed to solve human problems, as well as how to design and market the products.

Colette Murphy is professor of science education at Trinity College and an adviser to Steam Education. “The programme is aimed at primary schools. We are bringing real scientists into the classroom, not just to wow them and then walk away, but to co-teach a programme with the classroom teacher. Some of the teachers are from industry and some are from universities but all of the activities are related to the curriculum and it runs for one hour a week over 10 weeks. We want to inspire and excite children about science. This is the only project I have been involved in where I see real potential to improve generations of scientists.”

A project to entice young people into Stem is clearly needed. Automation and technological specialisation is seeing once-steady jobs being replaced by robots and software – a significant factor in the widespread political dissatisfaction that played a factor in Brexit and the election of US president Donald Trump as well as the gains made by the far-right in Europe. We need to create more jobs in Stem and we need the best and brightest minds to work in them.

This is happening at a slower pace than policy-makers might like. Over a decade ago, CAO points for science and engineering courses began to rise while demand for arts courses began a long decline. But the pipeline of talented and high-skilled Stem workers has not kept pace with the needs of industry and the public sector. Briain MacCraith is president of Dublin City University and he was chair of the Stem education review group which prepared a report on the issue for the Government.

“A well-educated Stem workforce is crucial to prosperity and innovative economies,” says MacCraith. “Our results in the programme for international student assessment (Pisa) were average on numeracy and science. The evaluators were particularly concerned with higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills; we need to improve these if we are to compete with places like Singapore or South Korea. So we say there’s a need for a robust evaluation of how we are doing in Stem at both primary and post-primary level.

We can do better, especially at second level, MacCraith says. “There is a feeling that the Leaving Cert, a single terminal exam, puts too much emphasis on regurgitation and rote learning rather than being a sophisticated test that tries to pick up real-world attributes like problem-solving and creativity.”

The report contains 47 recommendations and Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton has committed to 21 of them in the action plan for education. At post-primary level, these include a recommendation that all science teachers are fully qualified, computer science be introduced as a mainstream Leaving Cert subject, assessment models take account of student engagement in extracurricular activities such as CoderDojo and BT Young Scientists and that teachers have access to high-quality continuous professional development.

One of the biggest challenges to increasing the number of people working in Stem is the relatively low uptake of science and engineering careers by women. The report found that the single biggest influence on young women is their parents, so DCU and other partners are now developing information material for parents about Stem careers.

Other programmes to address the skills deficit have grown in recent years. Dr Ruth Freeman is director of strategy and communications at Science Foundation Ireland, which runs the Smart Futures programme which involves experts going into schools and sharing their expertise. “Our research shows that students across disciplines choose their third-level course based on how they feel they will fit in with others. So it begs the question: what kind of people do they think will be doing the course, and it means that we need to break down the stereotypes associated with science. We aim to give students and their parents the information on science before they rule it out. Since 2013, we have reached about 100,000 students in primary and secondary. Students can come to an event and meet scientists and engineers, or we go to their schools and give them information on careers. Students are savvy: they don’t want a glossy brochure version of the job; they want to know what life will be like if go down a certain route and it can be hard for a guidance counsellor to be on top of that.”

As well as Smart Futures, SFI runs or is involved in other outreach initiatives as part of its Discovery programme, which includes Discover primary science and maths for teachers, Science Week and Tech Week. “We believe that citizens should be engaged and scientifically informed, with an awareness of national and global tech and science issues and challenges,” says Freeman.

“Students should always follow their passion and interests,” says MacCraith. “We are not trying to change choices; we are trying to change opportunities. Mathematical ability is a fundamental problem. The jury is out on the (Leaving Cert syllabus) Project Maths. We are seeing that students at the lower end of ability are not doing as well when they take on honours maths, which is usually for the bonus points. Now we need to focus on the maths learning experience and this brings us back to the quality of teaching.”

In an uncertain jobs market, why should students throw their lot in with science? “We don’t know what skills will be in demand in 10 years’ time,” says Freeman. “But we do know that science and technology is a mega-trend and that we won’t have less technology. We won’t be going backwards.”

Addressing the skills gap

The National Skills Council and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs form a key part of the national skills infrastructure, with membership drawn from a cross-section of employer, educator and Government bodies.

As well as the work of the Stem education group and Smart Futures, there are a number of approaches to increasing the uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths courses, but right now there is a particular dearth of qualified technology and computer science graduates. The first ICT Skills Action Plan was published by the government in 2012 and this focused on increasing the supply of high-level ICT skills through targeted reskilling and skills conversion opportunities. Then, in 2013, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs carried out research into the demand for high-level ICT roles to 2018.

“The report contained recommendations to ensure that Ireland maintains a strong competitive advantage when it comes to attracting mobile ICT investment and encouraging entrepreneurs to set up, grow and locate their ICT businesses in Ireland,” says Tony Donohue, chair of the EGFSN. “Increasing the output of high-level graduates is a key objective of the plan, with a target to reach 74 per cent of forecasted industry demand for ICT graduates by 2018, with the balance to be met by inward migration. A key aspect of the success in progressing the action plans to date has been the close engagement of industry with government departments and education and training providers. Digital media literacy and embedding digital technology into subjects and short courses are a part of the action plan and in 2014 the government launched a new digital strategy for schools.”

In addition, the Department of Education’s action plan for education 2016-2019 contains a range of actions to be implemented, with a particular focus on identifying and addressing the skills’ needs of employers in Stem. Universities and institutes of technology have been given funding to hold summer camps in computer science for second-level students: over 1,245 students took part in 29 camps last year. Finally, Budget 2017 provided €1m to support 200 places on level nine ICT conversion courses for graduates of non-ICT courses to convert to this skills shortage area.