CHILDREN as young as eight are already switching off from science and maths, a government education adviser warned as a major review of teaching in these key subjects was launched.
It is too late to try to encourage interest in these subjects when they are 16 to 18, according to Dr Anne Looney, chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
Research shows that interest must be stimulated from an early age onwards, with special attention paid to 10-year-olds, a crucial time for the development of positive attitudes toward science and maths, she said.
The challenge of finding ways to boost interest and performance in these subjects is being taken up by the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Review Group.
Announcing the most comprehensive review ever in these areas, junior education minister Sean Sherlock said he wanted to ensure that Ireland measured up to international best practice.
Science and maths are key skills for the new economy, but Irish 15-year-olds are below the international average in maths and only marginally above average in science, according to the most recent OECD PISA study of student assessment.
Such is the urgency attached to the work of the group, being chaired by Professor Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University (DCU), that it will report in six months' time.
The review body has wide-ranging terms of reference including teacher quality and as part of its brief it will look at the preparation of teachers in both primary and post-primary schools for STEM education.
Studies have identified a lack of confidence among some primary teachers around science, while a recent NCCA report found that the teaching of science to Junior Cert students has not kept pace with what is happening in other countries.
Students spend too much time on facts and theories and not enough on appreciating the relevance of science, it found.
The review will also look at the increasing international trend toward a more inquiry-based and problem-solving approach to teaching and learning science.
A natural follow-on from that would be a switch in focus from written exams to other ways of assessing students.
The NCCA has already suggested that the new Junior Cert science should involve greater use of technology, including for assessment purposes.
The role that industry can play in supporting STEM education, such as through teacher training or the availability of technology, will also be a major focus of the review.
The review group announcement was made on the fringes of a seminar in the Royal Irish Academy on European-wide joint efforts between academia and industry on science education.