Science Foundation Ireland offers new paradigm for promotion of science
The organisation’s discovery initiative is to fund 39 programmes about science this year
The Festival of Curiosity, Dublin’s annual festival of science and culture, is to run at various venues in the city between July 23rd and 26th. See festivalofcuriosity.ie for details.
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is probably best known for its work in funding world-class research in third-level institutions and research centres throughout the country but another important strand of its activity is the promotion of public awareness and engagement with science, technology, engineering and maths. This is mainly achieved through the SFI discover programme, which has been designed to support SFI’s strategic aim of having the most engaged and scientifically informed public in Ireland.
While the organisation was given specific responsibility for science promotion in 2013 it has actually been doing it since its inception, according to director of strategy and communications Dr Ruth Freeman.
“This is something that SFI has been doing since the beginning. It’s an ethos we share with other national science bodies around the world such as the US National Science Foundation”, she says.
“They have always put a lot of emphasis on broader public engagement and education and we do too. We are spending taxpayers’ money and that comes with a responsibility. Every scientist who receives public money has to be able to go out and explain what they are doing with it and why it is worth it. They have to be able to go out to schools and to the general public and explain what they do.”
This year the discover programme will provide €1.6 million in funding for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) educational and public engagement projects around the country. The funding will support 39 initiatives designed to encourage people of all ages to develop an active and informed interest and involvement in Stem. It is estimated more than 4.5 million people will engage with the various projects this year.
These projects include the Engineers Ireland steps programme, the RDS Festival of Curiosity, Waterford Institute of Technology’s Maths Week Ireland, and SciFest. Schools activities include Science Live! – virtual tours of Irish science centres being developed by Amber in Trinity College Dublin; Science on Stage, novel classroom activities by teachers for presentation at an international conference co-ordinated by CasteL in Dublin City University; and I’m a Scientist, Get me Out of Here! – a free, online X Factor-style event in which school students meet scientists and challenge them to do just about anything, with the winning scientist receiving €500 to communicate their work with the public.
A central aim of this activity is to get more young people to consider studying Stem subjects, according to Freeman.
“This is very important. We did some research around that and we spoke to first- year college students about what informed their choice. We spoke to 1,000 who were doing Stem subjects and another 1,000 doing other subjects. One overriding factor with them was wanting to fit in. The second one was what their parents told them. But their advice was to do what suited their personalities. That just reinforced that sense of needing to fit in.”
She points out that much of this came down to the students’ perception of the kind of people who took subjects such as bioengineering or computer science. Unfortunately there can be a view that these subjects attract so-called geeks or nerds.
“That’s why we have the smart futures programme”, Freeman adds. “We have partnered with companies around the country and trained some of their people up to go out around schools as role models and talk to the students about what they do and about careers in Stem.”
But the overall objective is about more than simply increasing the number of Stem graduates coming out of our third- level institutions.
“We want to have the most scientifically informed and engaged public possible. This is quite fundamental to our democracy. If we are debate issues like healthcare and privacy and anything in our lives affected by technology we need to be informed about it,” she says.
“The whole basis of science is about asking questions and getting the data to be able to make up your mind about things. The scientific method is about giving people information in a way that’s accessible and can be easily understood. We scientists always tend to look at the impact later but before we ever write down what we are planning to do in a project we should be engaging with the public about it.”
Science Week, which is organised and run by SFI, plays a key role in this area by supporting more than 800 different projects and activities around the country each year.
Stimulating interest in science in the very young is another key area.
“Something that interests me is younger children and the way they want to learn about science,” says Freeman.
“Kids at primary level really are interested and ask why something happens and how. Discovery Primary Science & Maths has been designed specifically to help teachers engage with primary schoolchildren in relation to the science curriculum.
“We have developed a set of step-by- step activities and recipes using basic everyday materials to demonstrate science in action. This might be showing how plants suck up water by putting coloured water in a bowl and seeing a plant like celery change colour. Something seems to happen with children as they grow older and they seem to lose that curiosity and we need to look at strategies to address that. We are asking what we can do to sustain that curiosity.”
At least part of the answer may lie in some of the fun projects and activities which SFI is supporting under the discover programme. These include Brain Freeze, a childrens’ TV series that delves into science topics through a unique blend of puppetry, animation and top-notch comedy writing.
“One series has already been broadcast on CBBC and due on RTÉ Junior this autumn and we are now seeking to grow this engaging and funny brand via a second, longer-running series along with a companion book and online game or app”, says Freeman.
Another is Bees, a musical by WillFredd Theatre. “Kids know about bees and want to learn about them; and bees are important, if bees die out we will die out too,” says Freeman. “This musical will look at the life styles and cycles of the honeybee, bumblebee and solitary bee species in a fun and amusing way.”
And it needn’t be directly about science. “It may be that a young person is not interested in science but they may be interested in becoming a sound engineer and it may turn out that what they are interested in is the physics of sound. It’s just a question of letting them know that what they are interested in is science in the end.”