Inspiring young people to pursue science and tech is vital to address Ireland's growing skills gap

How government and business can help improve the quantity and quality of STEM students.

By Coorous Mohtadi MathWorks

The development of Ireland into a global technology hub is unquestionable. The proof is evident both qualitatively in the continued growth of the Silicon Docks in Dublin and quantitatively in the continual upward trend in industry job figures. 

CSO statistics for the second quarter of 2019 show that 118,000 people work in the tech sector in Ireland. Ireland’s repositioning of itself as a leader in technology has resulted in an increased focus on the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects in schools.

However, a worrying 2019 report by the STEM Education Review Group of Ireland presented to the Minister for Education and Skills stated that there was a significant drop-off in interest in STEM subjects at Leaving Certificate, especially by females.

This finding is also borne out at higher education, with multiple reports showing that women represent only a small minority of students in STEM courses at third level.

Supply and demand

Despite the introduction and support of various STEM education initiatives to counter this, we are still not seeing a quick enough improvement. More work has to be done to increase the number of students studying STEM subjects both at secondary level and at university.

Inspiring young people to pursue STEM beyond compulsory education and into the workforce is key to addressing the skills gap Ireland is currently facing.

Changes in society and the pace of technological advances are driving up demand for experts in STEM subjects, and unless we meet this demand we are at risk of restricting economic growth.

Consequently, we must find new and interactive ways to engage students, both male and female, in these subjects. Ireland is at full employment and struggling to find skills in many sectors, therefore we need to address the skills gap to maintain economic growth.

From monologue to dialogue

Of the many excellent approaches available to encourage students to pursue a career in STEM, we have found Project Based Learning to be the most effective.

This is reinforced by a survey by us conducted in the UK that found that 87% of teachers of science, maths and technology subjects agree that STEM should be taught with more practical, hands-on examples to bring the subject to life for students.

Project-based learning allows students to see, hear and touch what would otherwise be completely abstract and gives them a better idea of what a career in STEM might entail on a day-to-day basis.

The approach also allows children to experience first-hand that computing, maths and physics are not only technical but also very creative subjects.

This real-life interaction is one key to capturing their imagination at a young age, helping ensure that students maintain their interest in STEM through school and into higher education.

Another positive of project-based learning is that it can help students to meet current and future industry needs for practical skills and experience. 

One way to enable this hands-on learning in a classroom environment is through the incorporation of low-cost technology in the classroom. Specific technological devices can help make classroom tuition more engaging as students can bring theory to life in exciting and interactive ways.

When the students can see what can be achieved, and they participate in creating technology, they become more engaged in STEM subjects while also developing transferrable skills such as team-work, problem-solving and critical thinking.

This, of course, requires a significant shift in policy at Department level and a change in practices at a classroom level, but from our experiences in classrooms throughout the world, the effort is massively worthwhile.

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How can businesses help?

While project-based learning might seem like a straightforward solution, barriers such as funding and the time it takes to update the curriculum mean that the government benefits from support from businesses to realise their goals.

Therefore, industry and business have an increasingly key role to play in providing extracurricular support for education. 

This is particularly important now at a time where companies are competing for talent and forecasting down the line where skills shortage will develop.

Building on the mantra that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, we recognise the importance of putting forward visible female role models involved in the technology industry, as a way of encouraging girls to be confident in pursuing their interest in STEM subjects.

By providing time and resources for female professionals from all backgrounds – be it lab-based, coding, tech support, etc. – businesses can light the spark of inspiration that will result in a greater uptake of STEM subjects by students.

As a society, we must recognise the importance of fostering a positive perception and experience of STEM in schools, from government and businesses to parents and teachers.

With the growing importance of science and technology worldwide, our shared future  depends on it. 

Dr Coorous Mohtadi is a senior academic technical specialist at MathWorks

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