CAO 2017: Will Stem resurgence continue?

High dropout rates in science and maths at third level must also be addressed

It’s make your mind up time. Up and down the country sixth-year students – and their parents – are scanning subject options for continued study in our higher education system. The first deadline for submissions comes on February 1st, but there are later opportunities for a “change of mind” switch into another subject area.

How many students will opt for science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Stem subjects have been undergoing something of a resurgence after more than a decade of decline so numbers are expected to be up for 2017. Yet for most students the sciences and maths are a minority sport, one that will never attract the mass numbers going for arts, commerce and law.

And this is fine, so long as the total number entering Stem at third-level does not decline and assuming that the current high dropout rates can be reduced. The loss of potential Stem graduates has a very real impact on our economic wellbeing, given the demand for qualified graduates needed to feed into the multinationals and the many indigenous companies involved in high-tech exports. If Ireland cannot meet the demand then we become a less attractive option for foreign direct investment.

The numbers associated with Stem-based commercial activity here is quite astounding and is regularly catalogued by the Institute of Physics in Ireland, with its current report released earlier this month.


Industries based here and dependent on physics contribute about €38 billion to the wider economy according to the group carrying out the study, the Centre for Economic and Business Research. These companies employ more than 287,000 people so it seems there must be plenty of job opportunities for Stem graduates in these industries. Physics-based industries fully dependent on the subject delivered a turnover of about €48.7 billion which represents about 14 per cent of the national turnover, so we may be more technological that most people assume.

Substantial opportunities

All of these numbers increase as other Stem subjects are added, for example the 24,000-strong membership of Engineers Ireland and the pharmachem industries. More people end up in service industries here as a percentage of the total, but there are substantial opportunities for those who want to use their Stem degree after graduation.

This potential does not always seem to be met, however, with dropout rates and the general toughness of the subject material. Science is a complex subject and so cannot be taken lightly. A swatting session or two ahead of periodic examinations is not enough if a student hopes to do well.

This is why so much effort has been put into helping students still in school to get successfully through the exams and in the process learn to like Stem subjects. Last November saw the release of the Report of the Stem Education Review Group, a blueprint for improving the quality of our Stem education. The group, chaired by Dublin City University president Brian MacCraith, recommended 21 priority actions that needed to be put in place in order to deliver the highest quality Stem education programme.

Top of its to-do list was to ensure that Stem teaching should be delivered by teachers qualified in Stem subjects, difficult to achieve because of the lack of teachers with degrees in biology, chemistry and physics.

The report asks for professional development programmes for teachers that would enhance their skills in the teaching of Stem subjects. It also reflects a need for more digital learning and Stem teaching resources. All of this is driven by money, that familiar complaint, but the Department of Finance needs to take in the broader picture. An investment in primary and secondary education is also a direct investment in Irish exports, job creation and scientific discovery, so it would represent money well spent.

Special effort

A separate and special effort is required to overcome the general reluctance of women to sign up for Stem subjects. This has been a discussion point for decades and one considered in the Stem education report. Efforts to understand it have delivered unexpected results, however. Science Foundation Ireland conducted a survey among young people to see what they thought about Stem and found that the student's primary concern when choosing their college course was "fitting in" with others, not the subject material. This 62 per cent result topped career prospects at 56 per cent and entry requirements at 28 per cent. One wonders if having to don a white coat and goggles is something that works against "fitting in" in the minds of these students.

Verify Recruitment is one firm running its own campaign to encourage more women into Stem. It launched its Ada Lovelace Initiative in 2015, which sees women in leading Stem roles in companies talking about their careers with Transition Year students. This programme has so far reached 4,000 students. Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician famous for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical computer.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.