Wednesday 13 November 2019

Tech that: Past pupil power delivers future chapter for schools

Robotics programmes in the classroom paving a direct pathway into the digital economy, writes Katherine Donnelly

Daire Sheehy, Nikodem Morawiec and other second year students St Joseph’s CBS, Fairview, Dublin in their robotics class. Photo: Mark Condren
Daire Sheehy, Nikodem Morawiec and other second year students St Joseph’s CBS, Fairview, Dublin in their robotics class. Photo: Mark Condren
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

When principal Gerry Cullen was locking up after the school's recent open night for prospective 2020/21 pupils, a thought struck him, and he asked staff to double check one classroom.

His instinct was right and the room with the new robotics equipment was abuzz. It used to be that on open night, "the big draw was always the science lab; the lads loved to see flames and explosions. But this year, all I got was 'where are the robotics' and it was the last room to empty".

Robotics, along with coding, is on the timetable at St Joseph's CBS, Fairview, this year. As two of the new Junior Cycle optional short courses, that in itself is not surprising. But the subjects have particular relevance in the famous 'Joeys', one of three schools in Dublin's north east inner city involved in the new P-Tech initiative.

P-Tech was developed in New York in 2011 by global tech giant IBM and local educators. It aims to give students a career pathway into the digital economy by building up their skills all the way through second level.

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The other two schools involved are neighbouring Marino College and Larkin Community College.

Not only are they the first in Ireland, but they are the first in Europe to embrace this industry-led idea from the US. It operates in more than 110 schools globally.

Past pupils Brendan McGrath and Dave Rafferty. Photo: Mark Condren
Past pupils Brendan McGrath and Dave Rafferty. Photo: Mark Condren

P-Tech is radical in terms of Irish education because it allows second-level students to integrate elements of degree-level learning and paid work experience into their schooling.

Participants leave school not only with a Leaving Cert, but the equivalent of a post Leaving Cert (PLC) Level 6 qualification, which puts them first in line for a job with P-Tech industry partners if they don't want to continue to higher or further education.

When P-Tech was unveiled in Ireland last year, Paul Farrell, Country Manager of IBM Ireland, said that of the 185 US graduates of the programme at that time, 23 had joined IBM.

The story behind P-Tech's arrival is as unconventional as its twin-track approach to combining second and third-level study, along with workpalce experience.

That it happened at all is thanks to the drive of 'Joeys' alumni, who pushed it through officialdom with a dogged determination.

P-Tech starts in first year with taster technology activities and the formal programme begins in second year.

According to principal Cullen, such is the enthusiasm among parents and pupils, all 49 second years in St Joseph's signed up. "They all wanted to do it," he says.

Junior Cycle reforms facilitated the change and Cullen says it was also a particularly good fit for the school at a time when, coincidentally, it was preparing to introduce technology as a subject. As a history teacher himself, Cullen says there was no question of history losing out in the subject choice shake-up!

Alexandra Duane, who is the P-Tech Co-ordinator at St Joseph's, is also helping write the robotics Junior Cycle curriculum. Her second-year students have two classes a week each in robotics and coding.

Funding for the initiative supported the provision of laptops for students and Lego robotics kit, which allows them to build simple robots, connect them to their laptop and use software to control the functions of the robot.

At an age when research shows that many teenagers, particularly boys, start switching off from education, it's full-on engagement in the robotics class. Teacher Duane is almost invisible as pupils, working in pairs on their robotic models, get stuck into problem-solving, collaboration and peer-explanation.

P-Tech schools have industry partners - in the case of 'Joeys' it is IBM and Cisco - who provide one-to-one mentors for pupils. Students also visit industry and third-level colleges - the 'Joeys' second years are taking their first trip to IBM next month.

Third-level modules start in Transition Year (TY), through a partnership with National College of Ireland (NCI). Meanwhile, engagement with industry during TY includes paid summer internships in partner companies. Marino College is partnered with Irish Water and Virgin Media, while Larkin Community College is linked up with Irish Life.

Key players in Ireland's P-Tech story are 'Joeys' past pupils Brendan McGrath, founder of the renewable energy company Gaelectric, and former classmate Dave Rafferty, who is president/honorary secretary of Joeys Alumni. Their 50 year class reunion in 2016 marked a renaissance for the PPU and a knocking of heads about how to drive change at their alma mater.

According to McGrath, IBM had floated the P-Tech idea at the highest levels of Government more than once, but when it got to the nitty gritty of importing a programme devised for US schools into the Irish system, it ran into the ground.

Through his business dealings with IBM, McGrath became aware of the initiative and saw it as "something I felt was missing in the Irish educational system, which was very much geared one way and left behind a lot of kids".

Rafferty adds: "Brendan came to me with the idea and I said 'this is for the board of management'. He gave a 20-minute presentation and they were all convinced."

They asked the principal to talk to other schools in the area about coming on board and they got tacit agreement.

They tapped into everyone they knew and adapted the initiative to suit the Irish system.

McGrath, a former chairman of St Vincent's GAA Club, approached the North East Inner City (NEIC) group, a Government initiative to oversee the social and economic regeneration of the area, bearing a welcome educational gift. That some of the GAA fraternity were involved in NEIC probably helped. The NEIC got NCI involved. NEIC also had channels to the Taoiseach's office.

"NEIC said 'we will make it part of our overall programme' and, after that, it just took legs. In the meantime, I contacted Richard Bruton, who was the Minister for Education, He didn't know anything about it, but he got on the case." says McGrath

The launch of P-Tech today, at Dublin's Fire restaurant, where another 'Joeys' past pupil, Richire Wilson, is executive chef, also marks the first Joeys Connect Business Networking Breakfast.

Irish Independent

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