Science education has come a long way. Before the primary school’s last major revision, almost 20 years ago, science education was patchy at best while, at the same time, the post-primary syllabus was centred around facts with very little experimentation or focus on the scientific method.
Today, educators and policymakers recognise the importance of engaging young minds from an early age. They recognise the importance of showing that STEM (science, engineering, technology and maths) isn’t some secret ancient language indecipherable to all but a few of the brightest minds, but is open for everyone to learn.
So, what type of subjects are covered at primary, secondary and third-level? What sort of projects are students exposed to, and what difference can it make?
In primary school, children focus on themes rather than branches of science. Instead of looking at “physics”, “chemistry” and “biology”, they explore the world around them by looking at “energy and forces”, “materials” and “living things” as well as “environmental awareness and care.”
Margie McCarthy is head of education and public engagement at Science Foundation Ireland, which runs PrimaryScience, a programme that supports the primary school science curriculum. "In our experience, the energy and forces strand is the most challenging for teachers, especially for teachers who may not come from science backgrounds. The SFI Primary Science programme is focused on making those teachers comfortable with not knowing everything and giving them a level of comfort whereby they can explore that knowledge with the children through inquiry-based learning."
The Primary Science programme delivers continuous professional development for more than 1,000 students every year. “The focus is student-led learning,” says McCarthy. “It is based around helping kids identify what they want to know about a theme or topic and helping the teacher to carry out experiments instead of being focused entirely on the blackboard. It is designed to be cross-curricular”.
SFI also runs an annual programme of science and maths awards, with around 600 primary schools sending in logbooks with evidence of how much they have learned about Stem in the past year, and showing how they presented this; it could be a science fair, a presentation from the older to the younger classes, or perhaps a science activity that was done on a school tour. This is a free, Government-supported programme.
“We send a facilitator to these schools three times every school year, and task the school to implement what they have learned,” says McCarthy. “Because of this, teachers talk to one another about their lessons, creating a collaborative environment.”
Over 55 locations in Ireland, including Fota Island, Dublin Zoo and Midlands Bogs, have become "discover centres", offering workshops and outreach programmes for primary schools, and McCarthy says it has led to an increase in primary schools engaging with science.
Brain Freeze, a series of short Irish-made children's shows with a focus on science, and which air on CBBC and RTE2, are also being used in primary schools across Ireland. "They ask questions such as why do hair or nails grow and are really enjoyable for children and adults," says McCarthy. "Teachers can find it really useful to show and then hang a class off it."
Overall, McCarthy says, the aim is to move away from learning and regurgitation. “Kids have a natural curiosity and aptitude for Stem. We have to be careful that the culture in Ireland is still open to saying ‘I’m bad at maths’; we’d never say it about any other subject. And actually we are good at it, and kids love finding out, discovering and investigating – just as any professional scientist or engineer loves to do. We are trying to capture and nurture this by bringing it to life. While we still do need basic facts, including the times tables, the focus on education is shifting to enquiry and curiosity-based learning.”
PrimaryScience.ie has a selection of activities that families can do at home.
At second-level, students should be arriving with much of the basics and the aim of the syllabus is to build on their prior learning. Not all schools, however, are able to offer a full science or technology programme, especially smaller schools in rural areas.
Science Foundation Ireland’s Smart Futures programme, run in partnership with over 200 organisations including academic institutions, professional groups and industry partners, provides information on Stem to second-level schools around the country. As well as running a website, professionals working in Stem visit schools to give students information about careers.
“Our research shows that students choose a course back on whether they think they would fit in and whether it would suit their personality,” says McCarthy. “If a young woman has a perception that all scientists are men like Einstein, then she may struggle to identify with that, so we wanted to show young people those who are doing amazing work in the sector. It’s about showing them role models. We also run an online programme where children can ask questions online.”
Luke Saunders is a science teacher and founder of online exams website Studyclix.ie. "Since I was a child, I was always curious about how the world works, why the sky was blue and why the river meandered, and secondary school science gave me the answers to those questions," he says. "The junior cycle science course has been recently revised to include five strands: the physical world, the chemical world, the biological world, Earth and space and one which covers how to be a scientist and the scientific method. This latter strand is focused on how science works, rather than just giving students facts."
Saunders says that the best way of teaching young people about science is through experiments. "This could be freezing water and showing how it expands, or a student may set up an experiment and make a prediction and then see if they get the expected result. In a world where we are flooded with sources of questionable quality, it is really important that we develop the research and critical analysis skills of students and the new junior cycle does this."
Dr Aoibheann Bird, engagement and public engagement manager at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, says that Stem education at third-level is a whole different ball game.
Bird, who studied applied physics in DCU in 2001, enjoyed being able to carry out experiments during her time in college. "I loved the labs and the projects we did in first year, including the physics of the playground and the dynamics of falling toast and whether it really does land butter side-up and how many rotations that takes. We did project work together, which sometimes worked well and sometimes not as much, but it taught us the skills of time management, teamwork and people management while, at the end, we had to communicate our results to the class."
After winning a placement on a US exchange programme and following time spent at Intel, Bird went on to work with Nasa in Florida for three months. It was, she says, a brilliant learning experience and her motivation to study for a PhD. Today, she is one of the strongest advocates for young people to study Stem at third-level.
“It can be challenging to showcase the breadth of Stem,” Bird says. “One of the best options is to go for a general entry science or engineering degree, because as you go through the years you can see what you are really interested in and can stream yourself into a particular area. My partner went into the general degree and then moved to applied physics; it can take time to catch up if you have missed the first year but you do have the broad experience which is very useful. Knowing what you want to do is just as valuable as knowing what you don’t want to do: I only realised in third-year what astrophysics is really like and found it wasn’t for me.”
How can a student know if Stem is right for them? “If you like experimenting, mixing chemicals, seeing how bodies work, how to climb a tree, how to make apps on your phone, it might be the right fit. There is so much under the Stem umbrella and it opens up so many doors, with some Stem graduates even moving into business. Here at Insight, we work with physiotherapists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers and software developers, so it is quite diverse work.”