Michael Duffy: Stem education critical for country’s future

‘Interaction of science, technology and society will increase in next generations’

“Genuine change in how we teach science could do much to bring about a new culture of Stem education.” Photograph: iStock

“Genuine change in how we teach science could do much to bring about a new culture of Stem education.” Photograph: iStock

 

The importance of a knowledge economy to Ireland’s future is hard to measure, but it should not be underestimated.

While we may not know with any certainty what the new jobs in 20 or 30 years will be, our education system has to prepare for them now. The subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem ) are rightly seen as critical to meet this challenge.

However, we do not teach science purely for those who will seek a career in this area. It is important that our education system helps to create the basis of a scientifically literate society, so that we all have a shared understanding that is fundamental to how we live our lives.

This has never been more important, as the interaction of science, technology and society will only increase for future generations.

Ireland doesn’t have a national policy in the area of Stem education. A new education review group report is under way which will finally define the type of Stem education we should be planning for at primary and post-primary level.

It is expected the recommendations of this much-anticipated report will lay out how we should get there and will be central to discussions regarding future Government policy in this area. But policy alone cannot bring about a new culture of Stem education.

Thinking skills

Ireland consistently fares average, or above-average, in international rankings of attainment in science and maths, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

To improve our performance we need a step-change in how we support students to develop higher order thinking skills.

To move forward in this area we need to bring together the best international thinking in many areas of science education, incorporating initial teacher education and continuous professional development; inquiry-based and technology-enhanced learning; the gender imbalance; and the role of parents as key influencers.

Progressing change in each area will have merit but if tackled collectively, this will have the potential to significantly change the way science education is approached in this country.

We must also look at what influences students’ perceptions of and attitudes to Stem subjects.

Students’ responses to these subjects are open and positive at primary school level, but studies suggest that it becomes increasingly difficult to influence these attitudes by the age of 14.

Genuine change in how we teach science could do much to bring about a new culture of Stem education that would put students’ acquisition of scientific skills and processes on par with the learning of fundamental scientific principles.

The RDS experience of developing and delivering a Stem training education programme for primary school teachers shows that the depth of engagement with teachers is key in making this change happen and for it to be sustainable.

Cultural shift

The significant change we need will not occur with once-off interventions but requires a commitment to building in-school capacity through the development and delivery of effective, evidence-based initiatives.

While the importance of Stem education goes beyond the needs of industry, we should not overlook the role that industry can play in helping to kick-start a new departure.

Industry depends on the pipeline of highly qualified graduates and a scientifically and numerically literate society is undoubtedly to their benefit too.

This is a cultural shift in which we all have a part to play. Political will and cross-party Oireachtas consensus can help drive an ambitious Stem education policy that will benefit future generations. However, civic society must also play its part.

Creating a culture of teaching that frames Stem subjects in a more integrated, relevant and positive light, reaching beyond our immediate needs to the wider needs of society in general, will fulfil the future requirement for a thinking and learning population that can adapt and thrive.

Parents, teachers, industry and other science and educational stakeholders all have a part to play.

The report of the Stem Education Review Group is an opportunity for collaborative action by both governmental and non-governmental organisations to drive positive change in this important area. The work of the report will provide an opportunity for this to happen and be central to Ireland’s first Stem education policy.

Michael Duffy is chief executive of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), a philanthropic organisation which provides Stem training for primary school teachers. It also runs a primary science fair for primary schoolchildren in Dublin and Limerick