Saturday 24 August 2019

Drive to encourage more girls to study Stem subjects to meet skills needs

Revolution: Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Revolution: Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

A major drive is under way to increase the number of girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects for the Leaving Cert.

It is one of the key focuses in a 10-year plan being launched today to boost uptake in Stem and ensure that school-leavers and graduates are equipped with essential skills for the rapidly changing workplace.

"We are undergoing a technological revolution globally. If Ireland is to be at the forefront of this transformation, we must be a leader in nurturing, developing and deploying Stem talent," Education Minister Richard Bruton said.

Key to his ambition to create the best education system in Europe by 2026, would be its ability to adapt to a transformed economy and society.

"Our children must be equipped with the necessary analytical, creativity and critical thinking skills to thrive in such an environment," he said.

About one in four graduates in Ireland has a Stem qualification but that is not enough to meet the current and future skills needs of the "knowledge" economy.

As well as graduates, there is also a need for more apprenticeships that develop Stem skills.

Mr Bruton said his plan contained "challenging proposals, which require commitment across the education system to achieve the stated ambitions".

Among the issues to be addressed was a "significant gender gap" in the uptake of Stem subjects, such as less than 20pc of Leaving Cert female candidates taking physics or chemistry in 2017. By comparison, about 60pc took biology.

It will involve targeted measures to increase female uptake in Stem subjects by 40pc, and, overall, seeks to drive a 20pc boost in the number of pupils taking chemistry, physics, technology and engineering.

Through that, the aim is to lay the foundations for more school-leavers to pursue Stem-related third-level courses and careers.

The plan will start the process of piquing children's interest in Stem in pre-schools and, at the other end of the education system, business and industry will offer practical career-related supports to teachers and students, at both second and third level.

Elements of the programme already announced include the roll-out of computer science as a Leaving Cert subject in 2018 and the introduction of the foundations of computer coding in primary schools.

Other measures in the pipeline for second-level students include an awards scheme to recognise pupil participation in informal and extra-curricular Stem activities and events, such as the BT Young Scientist Exhibition.

As well as curricular reforms, schools would be expected to put Stem at the heart of their whole-school planning activities.

Mr Bruton acknowledged that "achieving our goals will require a significant step-up in support to teachers and school leaders and encouragement of innovation in teaching methods".

Implicit in the plan is that Stem education not only involves the teaching of Stem subjects in isolation but a cross-disciplinary approach and an acceptance that all Stem learning activities are underpinned by maths.

It also recognises the strong linkage between Stem and arts education, and ways to link the two will also be explored through partnerships to promote creativity, universal design and design thinking skills.

The programme will be rolled out in three phases and annual targets have been set for the first such phase, which runs until the end of 2019.

Maths-style bonus points in Leaving Cert science, technology and engineering subjects could also be on the cards, although not for a few years.

In this case, the bonus would only kick in if the students applied for higher education courses in Stem areas.

The idea will be explored, between now and the end of 2019, by the third-level colleges and a Department of Education-led task force that inspired the changes to the Leaving Cert grading and CAO points system this year.

Irish Independent

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