Sunday 23 October 2016

Start-up gives pupils insight to third-level

Slingshot Academy aims to help students make the right CAO choice

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30

Helping hand: The Slingshot Academy aims to help CAO applicants make the right choice.
Helping hand: The Slingshot Academy aims to help CAO applicants make the right choice.

Thousands of first-year students drop out of third-level education every year because the course for which they applied wasn't what they had expected.

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Slingshot Academy is a new initiative that attempts to tackle this problem by giving those approaching the end of second-level schooling an insight into the college learning experience from students who are not too much older than them.

Trialled last year by a group of recent graduates, Slingshot offers a once-monthly programme of interactive workshops, panel discussions and presentations from third-level students.

Each day-long event caters for 150 students between the ages of 15 and 19. After its successful trials, Slingshot is preparing to launch a new programme tomorrow at the National Gallery of Ireland with a focus on the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and entrepreneurship.

Last year, a study by the Higher Education Authority found that one in six first-year college students do not continue into second year.

Patrick Guiney, one of the founders of Slingshot, argues that the drop-out rate can be reduced by providing second-level pupils with more guidance and information about the choices they make when leaving school.

He has just graduated with a master's degree from UCD's Smurfit School and explains that the aim of the programme is to "take the focus away from CAO choices and getting over 500 points.

"It's about going back to the core fundamentals of what that student would really enjoy doing, whether that's a college down the country or up in Dublin, whether it's 200 points or 500 points," he says.

"I was one of the many students who didn't pick the right undergraduate course and didn't necessarily know what I was doing when I filled out the CAO.

"We wanted to run something that tries to alleviate that problem and help students to make an informed career choice."

Slingshot's earlier events offered presentations on a wide range of subjects, including arts, maths, business, law and drama. Feedback from students, parents and teachers indicated a desire for more of a focus on technology, so Mr Guiney and his team decided to hone in on STEM subjects for this year's programme.

Slingshot has enlisted a number of sponsors and all its events will be free to attend. Mr Guiney hopes to welcome more than 1,000 second-level students over the course of the year.

Slingshot events are run by third-level students who act as mentors, offering an insight into their own learning experience on a particular course.

The workshops on this year's programme include coding classes to learn how to build your own website, maths exercises focusing on real-life applications such as how to build a bridge or create music using mathematics, and an entrepreneurship task where students are broken up into teams and given 20 minutes to come up with an idea they will present to the group.

Ryan Kane (22) is one of the mentors on this year's programme. Now in his final year studying computer science at University College Dublin, he says he was drawn to Slingshot because of the problems he had when applying for college. "I was stuck between studying general science or computer science when I was in sixth year, and I would have really appreciated a programme like Slingshot. It's a place where students can go and explore career options in a fun, laid-back environment."

He says the benefit of Slingshot is that pupils are taught by mentors who are close to their own age, and who can give them an insight into what day-to-day life on their course is like.

"Students otherwise wouldn't have access to this kind of information or experience.

"At Slingshot, they can explore different college courses and hear from students who were in their position just a few years ago."

If a student is interested in a mentor's course, they are encouraged to keep in touch with them via email.

Slingshot also organises campus visits with mentors, and this year they will develop opportunities for summer work placements and work experience for second-level pupils to gain industry insight into particular areas.

Mr Kane is enthusiastic about this year's focus on STEM, and believes it is important to emphasise the variety of opportunities available to students within STEM, including courses in biochemistry, engineering, computer science and maths.

"A lot of students will immediately write off computer science without really knowing what it's all about. So my challenge is to make people rethink their preconceptions about computer science and to give them a better understanding of it.

"I add a bit of humour into my presentation as well. I ask them, 'what do you think when you hear computer science?' You can pretty much guarantee 95pc of the students will think of a nerd sitting at a computer with big glasses, but part of my job on the day is to break those stereotypes."

In addition to the events at the National Gallery of Ireland throughout the 2015-16 academic year, Slingshot Academy plans to run a similar programme in Galway in February 2016.

For more information, or to attend one of the events at the National Gallery, log on to

A student's perspective

Lucy Reid (17) is a fifth-year student at Kilkenny College, Co Kilkenny, and attended one of Slingshot Academy's events in transition year.

"It was completely different from the information you get in career guidance. I don't have any older siblings, so it's hard to find people who are in college to ask what their courses are like. It was really cool to talk to someone just a few years older than you.

"I'm still wondering what I'll study in college, but to have these mentors who are third-level students is a massive help. You can keep in touch with them after and ask any questions you might have - questions your career guidance teacher might not even know the answers to, because they're not the one doing the course.

"I'm really looking forward to this year's programme, and I'm bringing friends up with me as well."

Irish Independent

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