STEM Education in the Irish School System is a comprehensive report – but will there be a comprehensive implementation?

Ireland-STEM-reportIreland’s Department of Education has published a report on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in Irish education.

The report was commissioned by the previous minister for research and innovation, Seán Sherlock and was carried out by the STEM Education Review Group, chaired by Professor Brian MacCraith, who is the president of Dublin City University and a fellow of the Institute of Physics.

The report was commissioned in response to concerns about the “quality and quantity of the STEM pipeline”, given its importance to Ireland’s knowledge economy.

It’s a comprehensive examination of issues around the teaching and learning STEM in schools and the progression of students through to third level. It includes a detailed analysis of such areas as the supply of qualified teachers across all STEM areas, gender issues, careers advice, and the use of technology in learning. Of particular concern is the stubbornly low uptake of physics by girls in schools (just 25% of the physics Leaving Certificate cohort are female) as well as the imbalance in the qualifications of science teachers.

The report notes that the majority of teachers of science subjects have a biology qualification (more than three times as many as for physics), as evidenced by Teaching Council Registration data, and links this to the strong imbalance in the number of students studying Leaving Certificate biology compared to the other science subjects – more than four times the number taking chemistry and more than five times the number taking physics.

The review group have put forward 47 recommendations to address the issues, and 21 of these have been accepted by the Department of Education for priority implementation, including:

  • All STEM teaching should be delivered by qualified STEM teachers.
  • Introduce computer science, including coding, as a Leaving Certificate subject
  • Deliver improvements in continuing professional development for teaching in STEM
  • More inquiry-based learning as part of the curriculum in STEM subjects
  • ·Develop a means of recognising participation in extracurricular STEM events and activities (eg, Coder Dojo, BT Young Scientist Exhibition, etc.) as part of STEM curriculum and assessment
  • Improvements in teaching methodologies in STEM subjects, including better curricular materials, including a central, cloud-based repository for digital learning and STEM teaching resources
  • Support online communities of learning and practice
  • Better marketing of STEM qualifications, including highlighting career possibilities for students and parents. The report finds that there is a gap in awareness of the importance of these subjects
  • Address gender imbalances in specific STEM disciplines
  • Produce an integrated National STEM Education Strategy
  • Review the minimum entry requirements into the B.Ed programme for primary teachers

Many of the issues noted have long been highlighted by the Institute of Physics. The IOP has developed significant resources for the needs of out-of-field teachers – eg, the Stimulating Physics Network, which is now well established in England, and the Improving Gender Balance project. Such interventions have lead to encouraging results:

  • The increase in students progressing to AS-level physics has happened at more than double the national rate
  • In 2012, 82% of students achieved grades A*–C in physics GCSE compared with 69% nationwide
  • The participation of girls in post-16 physics has doubled compared to the national average

Elements of the report were also covered in the 2002 report of the Task Force on Physical Sciences [PDF], chaired by another president of Dublin City University, Dr Daniel O’Hare.

While that report lead to greater support for public engagement with science through the government’s Discover Science and Engineering initiative, and an increased awareness of the importance of the physical sciences to the economy, there has been little change on issues around gender or the low numbers of physics teachers in schools. It is to be hoped that there the recommendations to address these will be fully and swiftly implemented.

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