Who’d want a career in science or engineering? Quite a few, it would seem.
A decade or so ago, the low CAO points for science courses suggested that science wasn’t that popular. Now, it’s one of the most in-demand courses: last year, points for science at UCD rose from 505 to 515.
Points for the majority of engineering courses rose as well. Meanwhile, more students are realising that computer science is one of the most in-demand, exciting and well-paid careers out there.
Last year, a survey conducted through Facebook and Twitter for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition asked students which subjects they thought the best career opportunities lay: 86 per cent said science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).
What's behind these changes? Dr Aoibheann Bird is education and public engagement manager with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. "There are thousands of jobs available for Stem graduates," she says.
“I graduated from applied physics in DCU and then went on to a PhD in medical biosensors. I quickly got interested in talking to people about science and technology, explaining what we can learn from these disciplines, and talking to children and young people, as well as their parents, about the value of science. I love to scuba dive, for instance, and I’m an instructor, so I can talk to them about the science behind scuba and dive physics. We also run an event called ‘Thesis in Three’, where researchers explain their project to a general audience in three slides and three minutes.”
Science outreach has proven crucial in encouraging young people to enter education in the discipline, but what can they really get from it? Dr Arlene O'Neill is an assistant professor at the School of Physics in Trinity College with a background in nanotechnology at the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (Crann) , which involves manipulating atoms and molecules to create new materials, products and experimental approaches.
“We have a lot of researchers pushing boundaries and working with colleagues across the world, and to do this we need students from the Stem disciplines to collaborate. Crann has chemists working alongside medical doctors who in turn might be working with researchers from the medical device industry,” O’Neill explains.
More recently, she has founded the Trinity Walton club. Now in its second year, it brings together over 70 secondary-school students from schools around Ireland, every Saturday, to learn more about Stem from Trinity College PhD students. It runs from second- to fifth-year, and it's open to anyone with an interest and aptitude. Students come from a range of backgrounds and there's a 50-50 gender split.
“It gives them a sense that Stem is so much more than what they meet at school,” says O’Neill.
“They have to be innovative, because we believe that innovation comes from a well-grounded background in Stem, and that it is where entrepreneurs and researchers, creating spin-outs and projects for social and commercial good, come from.”
Students at the Walton club spend around an hour on physics, an hour on maths and an hour on technology and engineering combined. However, says O’Neill, they learn so much more than this. “Yes, they understand the basic fundamentals, but they also develop their softer skills, such as teamwork, communications, self-efficacy, debate and reflection. They learn core skills such as experimentation and scientific principles, research, data analysis and coding.”
In one physics experiment, students at the Walton club were challenged to design an experiment to compare a ski and a snowboard: what were the forces and dynamics underlying each? In another, they looked at how the Fosbery flop, where high-jumpers go over the bar backwards instead of forwards, is more efficient, and how it came to be the dominant move in the sport. For maths, they have looked at the algorithm behind spirograph drawing toys and learned how they can develop code to model them.
An experiment in engineering had a strong social element, with the students asked to imagine that they had either certain constraints or a disability; these included visual impairment or even just having a hectic and overwhelming life. They were then asked to design a product that could help people overcome their challenge.
“These are 14 year-olds with a social conscience,” says O’Neill. “We want them to see Stem as more than information in a book. It is vibrant and dynamic, and it can be used to better humanity and the world. The club gives them the creative freedom to decide where to go with it.”
Mary Cleary is the deputy chief executive of the Irish Computer Society and is involved in the organisation of Tech Week – an annual event aimed at students, parents and the general public to promote careers in technology. "We know that our economic prosperity is linked to the growth of the tech industry; it's growing rapidly but there are not enough graduates. Young people understand the digital world of Instagram and Snapchat, but they don't necessarily understand the nuts and bolts. ICT graduates learn about logic and problem solving, and these are valuable skills."
ICT jobs are no longer just in tech firms; they’re in every sector from accounting to manufacturing, medicine to zookeeping. The image of the man in the white coat, confined to a lab, is no longer an accurate reflection of what scientists do, says Bird. “Many of my physics colleagues have gone on to work in risk analysis and data analysis for major financial institutions.”
Encouraging girls into Stem careers, which have traditionally been male-dominated, is challenging. Bird runs Insight’s GirlsHack initiative, which organises Stem workshops for girls aged 13-17, with a special focus on technology. One of the projects involves introducing the students to female role models who work in Stem fields.
“We’re aiming to give girls the confidence to engage with these events, to join CoderDojo and Digital Makers clubs,” she says. “If only 25 per cent of the jobs are held by women, the diversity of teams is poor; if you’re designing a product or software you need perspectives from different backgrounds and experiences,” she says.
“There is a perception among students that they learn a body of facts and regurgitate these facts, but Stem is a process of trial and error, learning from mistakes, and using that to inform the direction we go in. If you don’t get the right answer in school, you may think you are not good at Stem but, at university, the more mistakes made, the more you learn.”
Space cadets: Kildare students knock together satellite How can a school bring science to life for its students, and encourage them to consider a career in Stem? Why, build a mini-satellite, of course.
And that's just what the students at Confey College, a co-educational secondary school in Kildare, did to beat seven other teams from Irish schools to represent Ireland in the 2016 European CanSat final, which will be held in Portugal in June 2016.
A CanSat is a simulation of a real satellite in the shape of a soft drink can and is an initiative of the European Space Agency. It is designed to inspire young people to pursue a career in the Stem fields, especially the space industry, and is supported by five institutes of technology. Each team had to fit all the major subsystems found in a satellite to their CanSat, complete with power source , sensors, communication systems and a parachute to ensure it has a gentle landing.
Last month, at an event held by the CEIA, which represents high-tech companies in the the Cork region, students even built and launched the satellites with their own rockets. Dealing with atmospheric pressure and a variety of engineering constraints were among the challenges facing the students, but they also had to give a presentation on their work.
Students will be using the Science Foundation Ireland hashtag ScienceRising at the event in June.