Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has launched a new three-year plan for its Smart Futures initiative which is aimed at delivering a 10 per cent increase in uptake of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects at second and third level by 2016.
The overall objective is to close the skills gap which still exists in sectors such as ICT, life sciences, and engineering.
Smart Futures began as a pilot in late 2011 following a previous Science in Schools initiative and is now part of the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs.
It is coordinated by SFI in partnership with Engineers Ireland’s education outreach programme. So far it has worked with over 50 STEM related organisations, directly engaging over 28,000 students in the process.
In the current academic year 432 volunteers have already been trained on delivering their career story to young students. They have been involved in 427 school visits, engaging directly with some 15,000 students nationwide.
In addition, more than 50 STEM-related organisations in the ICT, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, space, engineering and energy sectors, have participated in Smart Futures outreach activities, providing staff to talk to students during events such as Science Week, Engineers Week and SciFest."It's a terrific problem to have," says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson.
“There are still more vacancies in the STEM areas than there are graduates to fill them. And this is particularly so in the ICT sector where our higher education programmes were only meeting 40 per cent of the demand for graduates in 2012. This is now up to 60 per cent and we have a target of 75 per cent for 2018. It is a slow turning ship but we are going in the right direction.”
According to Ferguson this situation is by no means unique to Ireland and he points to a forecast of a shortage of up to 864,000 ICT professionals across the EU and the European Economic Area by next year.
“It’s the same situation across Europe and the US,” he says. “But Ireland is one of the few countries which is going in the right direction. There is definitely more work to do, of course, and we need to keep at it.”
But there have been many attempts in the past to address skills gaps in this particular area. What makes this new plan different or more likely to succeed?
“There are lots of different companies and organisations out there and they are all doing their bit to go out and evangelise on behalf of STEM subjects in schools,” Ferguson points out.
“Almost every large company is doing it and all of the representative associations are doing it. But it has all been a bit uncoordinated up until now and SFI has brought them together and we are trying to play a coordinating role.”
The first thing that is different about this latest initiative is its approach. “We are mapping the schools around Ireland to see which ones have had a STEM visit and which have not,” he explains.
“I am sure we will find that clusters of schools will have received several visits while others will have received none. This will help the companies and organisations to target their visits much better. They might find it much more effective to visit a few schools that have never been visited rather than several others which have been visited before.”
The second point of difference is the training of the STEM ambassadors. “We need to train the people who are going into the schools. This is not arrogance on our part. We know that the people who are volunteering to go and speak in schools are highly qualified and successful and are more than capable of talking about their own specialism.
“But not everyone will be interested in that particular specialism. We are training the ambassadors to be able to give information on a broader range of areas. We are also delivering basic training in communications skills as well. There seems to be a feeling out there that schools can take an infinite number of visits – they can’t. So we’ve got to sell STEM subjects when we have the opportunity; we might not get another with that group of students.”
The third and possibly most important difference to previous efforts will be the ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of this programme.
“Everyone believes that it’s a good thing to go and visit schools and of course it is,” Ferguson notes. “But we need to ask ourselves the question as to which visits were effective and which were not. We also have to ask why. This is very difficult to answer as you have to know what would have happened if you had done nothing.”
Part of the answer will come from the mapping exercise. “There will be schools which have never had a visit from a STEM ambassador and we will be able to see if that made any difference.
“We will also be able to look at what might be most effective. Should we spend some of our time going to parent teacher meetings instead of going into the classroom for example? We will utilise the same skills as we do when it comes to research funding and try to make the activity as effective as possible.”
Looking to the future Ferguson believes success will lie in being as flexible and adaptable as possible. "It is hard to measure something scientifically when you go in with a belief that what you're doing is good", he says.
“But the real question is how we can be most effective in what we are doing and that will require thinking about new ways of doing things. When you look at the pace of change in the area we are addressing it is easy to see why this is necessary. Things like phone apps didn’t even exist 10 years ago.
“The adaptable workplace of the future is going to need adaptable people and the analytical and problem solving skills people gain from studying STEM subjects are very transferable and are very important generic skills.
“We shouldn’t just think about STEM as just being focussed on high tech job opportunities, it has applications everywhere and the Smart Futures initiative must reflect that.”