It's full STEAM ahead for new Junior Cycle short courses
Schools offer their own programmes now in place of traditional subjects, writes Katherine Donnelly
Junior Cycle has never looked like this before. In the engineering heartland of the north-east, incoming first years at Beech Hill College, Monaghan, are the first to sample short courses, one in STEAM through Robotics and Programming and another in Film Making.
STEAM is where you put an A for Arts into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
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In the south-east, first years from the rich farming hinterland around Coláiste Abbain, Adamstown, are being introduced to a short course in Agricultural Science and Self-Sufficiency, partnered with Digital Technologies in Business.
One of the big ideas of the new Junior Cycle was giving schools the freedom to devise their own short courses, but with the bedding-in of other changes, they are only now starting to materialise.
Short courses are not typical subjects, but may be related to one, and the intention behind them is to broaden the educational experience of pupils.
To kick-start the concept, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) offered a menu that includes coding, Mandarin, Artistic Performance, Philosophy and CSI: Exploring Forensic Science. But the real value is seen in teachers, principals and boards of management reflecting on the needs and interests of their school community and developing their own.
Coláiste Abbain and Beech Hill College, along with CBS Roscommon, are at the vanguard of this brave new world in Irish education.
A short course gets half the time of a traditional subject. Pupils may trade a full-time subject for two short courses, up to a maximum of two for four.
It opens up more options for pupils, but schools have to decide what subject to set against them on the timetable. This is what has given rise to concerns that, depending on the school and the pupil, subjects such as History and Geography may lose out.
The NCCA oversees quality of school-developed courses by requiring the use of materials and planning templates that it provides, and also offers feedback at various stages in the development. It recently published guidelines for schools. Student learning in short courses is assessed in the classroom.
At Coláiste Abbain, Learning Support and Business and Accounting teacher Dean O'Connor is leading the change The roots of his Agricultural and Self-Sufficiency course started in his learning support class.
"I come from a farming background and I wanted to bring my own interests into the classroom and see how I could engage students," he says. "Two years ago, we did projects on hatching and rearing our own chickens. We got to see the whole stage of incubation and we reared them up in school."
He followed up last year with a lunchtime agriculture and horticulture club, attracting about 60 members. They hatched 14 chicks - who remained under the watchful eye of the caretaker over the summer - and also grew vegetables in the school's polytunnel.
O'Connor says "the pupils had responsibility for everything and they had to make sure the produce was up to scratch for the Christmas craft fair". The school canteen also makes good use of it and has even sponsored plants, such as lettuce, to provide them with a ready supply. After contact with Agri-Aware, farm walks and talks became part of club activity.
O'Connor thought it "would be great to tie it all down" and so his short course was born this month, with an intake cap of 28 out of 72 first years. He says the main aim is to introduce students to agriculture, horticulture and self-sufficiency, and to develop an appreciation of the natural environment, with an eye on futures such as in agri-tourism.
There is a big cross-curricular link, such as with Business Studies and Home Economics. Last year, some kale and potatoes were transformed into colcannon and served up to 30 sixth years and their teachers.
To partner it, O'Connor also developed a Digital Technologies in Business course with a focus on life skills and how to be a good consumer.
Beech Hill College is in a part of Ireland with a concentration of cutting-edge manufacturing and engineering companies. The school was already offering a Transition Year module in Robotics and Programming and the flexibility offered by the new Junior Cycle got James O'Shea, a teacher of Construction, Design and Communications Graphics and Technology, thinking.
"We approached two local companies, Combilift and Errigal Contracts, and asked them to come and see what we were doing. They were eager to get involved and see could it be offered to other years," says O'Shea. "What really stood out to them was the skills the students were using. The way we were teaching promoted development of skills such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, which married with what the Junior Cycle is trying to do."
And so the STEAM short course was conceived. The two companies have supported the kit-out of a state-of-the-art 'innovation space' in the school.
English and Media Studies teacher Shauna Foster had been trialling a Film Making course and the potential symbiosis saw the courses developed and offered as a joint option for first years this September.
Beech Hill already has a rich film culture. Foster was working with the Irish Film Institute for the past couple of years and consulted with them. "It was always the goal to deliver a short course," she says.
Combilift managing director Martin McVicar describes the STEAM course as an excellent example of how industry can work with schools to identify the skills in demand in an area and provide support in the delivery of what are essential skills for engineering, as well as in other aspects of their studies.
At CBS Roscommon, business teacher Orla O'Connor developed a Level 2 short course in Culture and Heritage for pupils in their ASD classes.
Now in its second year, it engages students in local heritage and culture, but also explores the ethnic diversity of pupils, through food and music.
Meanwhile, Dublin's Airfield Estate has developed a short course called Food: From The Ground Up and aims to make it available to schools in September 2020.
It was driven by their mission to inspire and enable people to make better food choices. It has been created by Airfield Head of Education and Research Dr Kirstie McAdoo, with the help of the NCCA and the principal of nearby Wesley College, Chris Wood,
They undertook research in conjunction with UCD's Nutrition and Dietetics Department to explore the Irish experience and understand food and its provenance.
Airfield's Niamh Potter says they found "a large disconnect in people from their food and began looking for a way to positively influence and nurture their food experiences. The new Junior Cycle offers the opportunity for schools to combine a number of learning experiences from a number of subject specifications into experiential learning in the short courses and we hope to help them do that".