Studying science at college is a whole new ball game

The Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) at third level can be challenging, warns a TCD student

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is socially inept and not good at co-operating. Most scientists, however, don’t conform to this stereotype

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is socially inept and not good at co-operating. Most scientists, however, don’t conform to this stereotype


The progress of science is driving the growth of the Irish economy. Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) education is heavily publicised, as Government and private firms try to attract students to this growing sector. The extensive promotion has lead to a surge in popularity of Stem degrees; since the 2008 financial crisis, general science at Trinity College has increased by 100 points. However, this demand has resulted in an increase in dropout and transfer rates – as high as 50 per cent in some colleges nationally.

I finished the Leaving Cert in 2013, and decided to study science at Trinity College. As I approach third year, I’m delighted with my degree choice.

Preparing students for Stem courses and what they entail is essential to reduce the increased dropout rate. Any student who has gone to a college open-day has seen the Stem demonstrations. These often involve explosive mixtures in conical flasks, a robot war, or submerged flowers in liquid nitrogen.

While these all signify important concepts, they fail to represent a Stem degree in its entirety. They showcase a single facet of Stem in a dramatic style and often leave students with the wrong expectations.

Academic rigor is demanded in all Stem degrees. Mathematical proficiency is required to describe phenomena, be it the kinetics of a chemical reaction, or a model of airflow in a building. This requires students to mathematically define a problem and from there find a solution.

While Project Maths aims at engaging students, it hasn’t quite closed the gap in terms of Leaving Cert and third-level expectations. I found the step-up challenging, particularly in my first year. Maths is the language of Stem, and students must be aware a sound understanding is required, regardless of the subject.

Conceptual nature

When I began my degree, I based my module choices on the subjects I enjoyed for the Leaving Cert, namely chemistry, maths and physics. In school I enjoyed the conceptual nature of physics, which gave an introduction to fascinating topics such as nuclear energy and electricity.

However, at third level, the highly abstract and mathematically demanding nature of the subject was testing. This is a common trend; Leaving Cert subjects are not always a true reflection of their third-level counterparts.

At the start of my first organic chemistry lecture, our professor told us to forget everything we knew about the subject. We laughed nervously, but he wasn’t joking.

The Leaving requires students to memorise huge quantities of information. This isn’t feasible, and the emphasis in further education is on self-learning and discovery. No lecturer will demand you complete the prescribed material. There will be very little reference to exams at college, as it’s expected that you learn and understand all material.

I remember the suspense before the Leaving Cert English paper, as everyone had an opinion on which poets would make an appearance. At third level, this form of strategic study is redundant, as learning for real-world application is the priority.

This contrast in second and third level is reflected in the approach to teaching. At college, the material is unlimited; lecturers encourage a vast exploration. In maths, for instance, this may involve deriving equations not necessarily part of the course. This detachment between second and third level is the case in all disciplines, maths, chemistry, physics or any field of Stem.

While the Leaving Cert offers a broad introduction to their third-level equivalents in terms of material, the method of investigation is very different, and will present a difficulty for transitioning students. Each education level is aiming for something different: education for a test versus education for life. This shift in learning presents its own challenge, which all Stem undergraduates must overcome if they are to succeed.

Some of the beauty of the subject is lost through over-analysis. Anyone who has studied Leaving Cert English knows some of the magic of a poem is lost when it’s dissected. Part of its appeal is its enigmatic character. When I began studying quantum mechanics, I was fascinated that simply observing an electron can change its behaviour, acting as a particle or a wave. Several run-ins with Schrödinger’s Equation later, and the topic’s lustre has worn slightly. While I still find it interesting, the delight isn’t quite the same.

For an evolution module, viewing a David Attenborough documentary was part of the course. As someone who spent their childhood growing up with the famous naturalist, I was thrilled with the assignment. However, when I sat down to watch the programme, I would often have to stop, replay, and take notes. This scrutiny spoiled the enjoyment to an extent.

Wonderful thing

As Albert Einstein once said “Science is a wonderful thing as long as one does not have to earn a living at it”.

While I still think science is wonderful, there is a grain of truth to it, and aspiring Stem students must be aware that scientific work requires rigour.

Nevertheless, after two years I constantly come across new concepts and theories that never fail to surprise or offer a challenge. It takes on a new type of joy, based on understanding the fundamentals of the world around us.

Anyone involved in the Stem field must be able to communicate effectively, collaborate, and work as part of a team. A popular, stereotypical physicist is Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory: socially inept, stubborn, and not good at co-operating. This, like most stereotypes, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Communication of new ideas and technology to the general public is increasingly recognised as the responsibility of Stem professionals. Students pursuing a Stem degree must develop their ability to impart complex information in a clear, concise way.

The communicative nature of Stem often presents a challenge to students who are daunted by public speaking, or the fact that their work will be questioned in a very open manner. Effective communication and teamwork is essential in a practical setting. Research is interdisciplinary, requiring a number of professionals from different fields. For this reason aspiring students must be able to collaborate and work in a team. A Stem career requires confidence, creativity and charisma.

I’m trying to give an accurate representation of a Stem degree. With such an emphasis on attracting students to choose Stem, Government and private organisations fail to prepare students for the rigorous, dynamic and methodical nature of this field. Like everything in life, there are both advantages and disadvantages.

I’ve highlighted some of the trials you may face if you decide to enter this area. Like most challenges, however, they may be overcome through hard work, persistence and dedication. You cannot overlook the benefits of a Stem degree. I have greatly enjoyed my time so far, and value the academic atmosphere and adventure that comes with Stem. I would never discourage anyone from choosing Stem, a highly rewarding field.

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