At the beginning of every year we celebrate science through the young students whose ideas and projects are proudly displayed at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. This event has provided opportunities for the nation to talk positively about the sciences with students from every county presenting their work. As one of the many judges at the exhibition, it is always a pleasure to find out from these teenagers the motivation for their ideas, how they carried out their project and what they have learned from their investigations.
However, while this and other events such as SciFest celebrate student work across the sciences, we have yet to link such extracurricular activities to the formal education system and establish how similar learning outcomes can be embedded in teaching and learning science and mathematics in the classroom. In fact, research in formal Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, investigating the best approaches to teaching and learning in these subjects, is not often explicitly supported through formal structures in Ireland.
You may ask, why should such research be necessary? Surely funding scientific research on its own merit should be enough? While a recent report from the Institute of Physics has stated that research in this field alone contributes 26 per cent of gross value added to the Irish economy, such figures will not be sustainable without students continuing to study physics at secondary and third level.
The former objectives of education, which emphasised a knowledge of facts, are no longer as valuable in a society where information is available at your fingertips. The value of education is now to encourage young people to think critically about the world around them and incorporate logic, rationality and the scientific process when solving problems. Without fully understanding how we should best support teaching and learning of these skills in the classroom, we are unlikely to support young learners in fulfilling their potential both in the sciences and across the curriculum. We should therefore be actively investigating pedagogical practices in science and mathematics through culturally relevant, high-quality Stem education research.
There are many questions to ask: What are the best ways to develop skills in numeracy? What are the most appropriate ways to learn about the scientific process? How should we support teachers in upskilling and developing their knowledge and skills in mathematics and science?
In the US, the National Science Foundation has a tradition of incorporating educational research in Stem as an important element of their funded scientific research. About $1 billion (€944 million) is spent investigating the teaching and learning of the sciences in the formal education system. To take one project as an example, research has identified lesson study as a successful way of developing mathematics teacher knowledge and positively impacting on students' mathematical learning.
In Ireland, while research is under way on teaching and learning in the sciences, there are few agencies actively supporting ways to investigate and develop school practices. Science Foundation Ireland has diligently supported public engagement in science and funded very many projects in science outreach outside of the classroom. However, research on the formal education system classroom teaching and learning has not yet received comparable attention. Similarly, while the Department of Education and Skills has historically supported large scale research in classrooms, there are no current explicit structures which fund research on Stem education in schools. Science and mathematics education research should not be viewed as an additional expense, but rather an investment into the ideas and learners of the future.
At a time when various reforms are under way in science and mathematics, it is crucial that careful, peer-reviewed research is valued in supporting practice and policy. Such research can benefit our students by identifying the best ways to support learning and highlight Ireland’s role as a global leader in science.
At the opening of the young scientist and technology exhibition a number of weeks ago, President Michael D Higgins spoke to the hundreds of young people and encouraged them to continue to utilise science and technology in the service of humanity. Highlighting the value of ethics and philosophy, President Higgins commended these youngsters for providing solutions of sustainability in society. By continuing to investigate the best way to structure, support and value the teaching and learning of these subjects, we can strive to provide the best educational environment to learn about Stem.