Sunday 18 February 2018

The neglected subject that could be the solution to the recession

Experts say there's not enough science at primary level, writes Lisa Jewell

We've long been told that we need more science graduates in our workforce. It seems that young people are now taking heed that the jobs lie in science and technology – there was a 22pc increase in applications for science courses this year and the CAO points rose for many of them.

But experts are still concerned about the drop-off in interest in science subjects during post primary and are advising that we need to set our focus further back at primary school level.

The idea is that if you can hook children into science at this stage, you've a better chance of keeping that interest throughout post primary and into third-level education.

Science is a relatively new subject at primary school level – the curriculum was only introduced in 2003. Previous to that, science consisted mostly of natural and environmental sciences and was in sharp need of a modern curriculum that tied into physics, chemistry and biology.

Science is now taught as part of the subject Social Environmental and Science Education (SESE) along with geography and history.

"Science as a subject was a new initiative and it's something that the kids have really taken to," says Niall Mulvey, principal and teacher at St Brendan's National School, Loughshinny, Co Dublin. "Children really enjoy any subject where they get to be hands-on and we try to make science as practical as possible for them."

The school has hosted a Science Day for the past two years, as part of the nationwide Science Week.

"Instead of having an assembly, the children show their experiments to the entire school. It's one of the most enjoyable days of the school year."

Mr Mulvey says that one of the challenges of teaching science is providing plenty of resources for experiments.

"Some things aren't too expensive and we really depend on the parents to help us with the extra bits and pieces – cartons, batteries and so on.

"But other things do cost money and I think that if there was a plan to develop science more at primary school level, more resources would need to be put in."

This year, Mr Mulvey's class took part in an initiative called Science Forward. It involves 800 pupils taking part in science workshops hosted at third level institutions. The workshops, run by volunteers, began in mid November and will run up to Christmas. Themes this year include forensic science, brain power and energy.

"The kids did experiments in each theme," says Mr Mulvey. "They were able to build a hovercraft out of simple things like a bottle top, CD and balloon – we brought that experiment back to show during our Science Day."

Science Forward is run by Bord Gáis Networks and Junior Achievement Ireland.

Caroline O'Connor of Bord Gáis Networks, who came up with the idea, says: "One reason we wanted to do this is that a large proportion of our staff work in the engineering and mathematical fields so we have our own interest in making sure that those jobs are sustainable in the future and that there's an investment in the science education of children.

"We decided to aim the workshops at sixth class children – to get them more interested in science and more likely to pick science subjects in first year of secondary school."

It seems that more work is needed in the area of primary school science.

A National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) review of science in primary schools in 2008 found that first year post primary school students had generally positive views of how science was being taught in their school.

This contrasted strongly with their views about the science they experienced at primary school, which they felt wasn't sufficiently frequent or practical.

One major issue about how science is taught at primary school level came up last September – the fact that much less time is spent on it in comparison to religious education.

The OECD 'Education at a Glance' report revealed that Irish primary pupils spend only 4pc of their class time on science – half the international average of 8pc.

And pupils here spend two and a half hours a week on religion as compared to science (one hour).

"This only factored in the time spent on religious instruction class," says Jane Donnelly, Education Officer of Atheist Ireland. "More class time is spent on preparing for sacraments and that wasn't included in the report.

"Secular parents who have to opt their children out of religion classes know their children have two hours a week when they're not doing anything – they could be spending that time on science.

"The OECD figures show that we're spending more than twice as much time on religion as on science and I think that's true – we should be promoting science more, it's where future jobs lie and a lot of parents want their children to do more science."

Irish Independent

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