Teaching of science must be recalibrated

Irish second-level education needs far more investment in professional technical skills and laboratory facilities

Ireland's taxpayers have poured hundreds of millions of euro into scientific research over the past decade and we now rank as a global knowledge leader. The Government's plan, through Science Foundation Ireland, is to place scientific research "at the core of Irish society".

So, should today’s children expect the opportunity to participate in powering forward Ireland’s reputation? And are we giving the next generation of scientists a fair shake at science?

There is broad recognition that science at primary- and second-level education is important in sustaining the “knowledge economy” and producing future generations of top science graduates. SFI, for example, runs various programmes to support science in our schools. How well we are doing on this front, though, is not clear.

According to the country’s science teachers, there are significant challenges in second-level education that should pose concerns for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


Of the approximately 50,000 Leaving Cert students in 2013, only 4,832 took higher-level physics and 6,756 took higher-level chemistry. "This is very worrying," says Mary Mullaghy, chairwoman of the Irish Science Teachers' Association. "These are key subjects required by our high-tech industries."

Professional development
The key to solving this problem, she says, is for greater government support of continuing professional development programmes for teachers.

The Teachers' Professional Network, funded by the Department of Education and Skills, is "an excellent system as it provides funding directly to the subject associations to organise continuing professional development", says Ms Mullaghy. "Unfortunately, many of the activities that the members of our organisation request are not deemed suitable for [Teachers' Professional Network] funding," she added.

Since 2006, the teachers’ association has received €212,494 for various continuing professional development initiatives, according to records at the department and only one initiative put forward by the association in 2012 was not supported, according to a department spokeswoman.

A further barrier to the uptake of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, according to the science teachers, is that Leaving Cert students are prohibited from opting for combined physics and chemistry along with either of the separate physics or chemistry subjects. This should be changed so that “in schools where either physics or chemistry is not taught, students should have the opportunity to gain exposure in the second subject by also taking the combined course”, according to Ms Mullaghy.

Lab facilities
The issue of technical support is also raised by science teachers. There are rarely science technicians in schools in the Republic, unlike in Northern Ireland or the UK. But it is the state of science labs and facilities in our schools that tops the agenda with teachers and principals.

"There has been a significant investment by the department in upgrading labs," says Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. The focus had moved away from "just chalk and talk", he said. There were, however, pressures on equipment budgets and "access to labs was a big constraint".

According to the association, individual schools have very different standards of science facilities, “ranging from the use of general classrooms and prefabs as science rooms to the opposite end where some schools have high-spec laboratory facilities”, and the cost of running a lab or replacing broken equipment outstrips available budgets.

Post-primary schools which provide science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in Leaving Cert classes receive a programme grant of €13 per student per science subject taken, according to the department spokeswoman.

The provision of science labs is included in the architectural design of all new post-primary schools and funding may also be provided to existing schools.

According to the science teachers, however, laboratories need to be “brought up to a minimum standard required to teach all of the mandatory practical work required by the Leaving Cert physics, chemistry and biology syllabuses”.

SFI will shortly reveal the identity of the first of several “iconic scientists” to be attracted to Ireland to set up major new research groups. Meanwhile, Ireland received an “average” rating in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment. The question is whether the future icons of science hail from our own classrooms.

Dr Gavin Collins (@gcollinsgalway) is based at NUI Galway and is on placement at The Irish Times as a British Science Association Media Fellow, in collaboration with Science Foundation Ireland