Tuesday 22 August 2017

In my opinion: Trust fund would help boost maths and chemistry

Everyone talks about the importance of improving the numbers of students doing science and maths at school, improving the quality of student performance and intake into third level. But very little is done to change the situation.

The Government wasted its opportunity to implement the recommendations of the Task Force on the Physical Sciences which reported in 2002, when money was available, and now when money is short, support for continuing professional development (CPD) has been cut.

We have invested enormous sums of money in scientific research, but the education system is not providing enough graduates to take up the postgraduate research posts available, and over 50pc go to non-nationals.

There is an urgent need to invest in the teaching and learning of science and maths at second level through CPD, which aims to improve the subject knowledge of teachers as well as how to teach specific subjects. However, we also need to invest in research into the effective teaching and learning of science and maths.

Recent work in the Chemistry Education Research Group at UL by Maria Sheehan has shown that Irish students, at second and third level, find most of the topics in chemistry difficult, and this is clearly linked to their maths ability. The ability to think formally and handle abstract concepts is vital for success in maths and science.

Put bluntly, many Leaving Certificate and third level students fail because they have not developed adequate thinking skills to master the material they are taught. This leads to poor motivation and is one reason for poor attendance (a crucial factor in third level success) and high drop-out rates.

We need to apply the results of research in teaching and learning in the classroom by developing effective strategies that will develop thinking skills rather than memorisation and regurgitation skills.

These will deal with fundamental misconceptions early on, which hinder students' future success in science and maths.

My suggestion is that Ireland sets up a private STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Education Trust Fund, funded by voluntary, annual donations by science-based industries, based on a small percentage of their turnover each year. A 0.01pc tax-deductible levy on the pharmachemical industry alone might raise €0.5m a year.

Such funding would revolutionise the teaching of science and maths in Irish schools.

This Trust Fund, which would be administered by a board of trustees drawn from industry, business and academia, would solicit, evaluate and fund proposals to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at all levels.

It would also provide funding for the production and dissemination of successful initiatives.

The fund would enable Ireland to fulfil many of the still-born recommendations and aspirations for improving science and mathematics education made over the past few years.

The many science-based and hi-tech industries in Ireland would thus be able to play a direct and important role in improving the education system on which they depend.

We must solve the problems of teaching maths and science in schools if we are to have enough smart, innovative undergraduates, able to think for themselves and be creative, who can then contribute to fourth level research and the smart economy.

Irish Independent

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