Science Week Ireland: Discussion

I welcome Mr. Peter Brabazon, programme director of Discover Science and Engineering, who is here to make a brief presentation on Science Week Ireland, running from 13 to 20 November. I understand this year's theme is the chemistry of life and that more than 500 events will take place nationwide. Members may make a few brief comments after the presentation. Some of our Labour colleagues had to leave the committee for the Order of Business in the House but they will look at the presentation later. I have informed Members that Mr. Brabazonhopes to return to the committee at a later stage to take more questions. I invite Mr. Brabazon to make his presentation, following which we will have some feedback from members.

Mr. Peter Brabazon

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to appear before the committee. As this is Science Week I will say a few words about what we are trying to do. We are linking education for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, and skills on one side with jobs, which was dealt with in the previous presentation. At the end I would like to show the connection.

Discover Science and Engineering is funded by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. This year our budget is €1.9 million but it is declining. In an overall sense we are promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, on two levels: general awareness such as Science Week Ireland and supporting the education system.

Our target audience is primary school children and second level children but particularly those at second level. The science agenda was reintroduced into the national curriculum around 2002 at primary level. Much work has been done there and we have a good project in place there. It is really about inquiry based teaching and learning; in other words, supporting learning by doing, rather than learning by rote. That is the change in the national curriculum. I have included some additional information in the packs for members about the five key skills that are being used to design the education curricula at primary and second level. That is what industry and enterprise requires.

Science Week Ireland, as the Chairman mentioned, has approximately 500 events all around the country. It is a spectrum of very large events, using this year's theme, that is, the chemistry of life. We have left it quite open but it could be the chemistry of love to electronic bonding in, for example, Intel or some quite important technical thing. It is broad. This morning, some schools would have opened their assembly sessions with a talk on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yesterday, I was at Microsoft where we had approximately 140 children with their teachers and career guidance people to hear about the issues from some very successful people who are still in education, on what they are doing as regards science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The main man, Mr. Paul Rellis from Microsoft, was present, to say why he was in the business as an accountant. That is very important. It is not just about technology, it is about people who are literate in technology as well.

The general awareness in Science Week Ireland is about literacy. We work through about 100 key partners for the week. We have obviously a spectrum from the very large companies like Microsoft but right down to those school assemblies. In most cases there is no financial transaction, it is something that we as Ireland Inc. want to happen and Discover Science and Engineering co-ordinates the event. In the case of the theme, it drives communications and, fundamentally, on it provides the programme where local people can see what is happening in each county. It is very much a nationwide event with approximately 500 events, two-thirds of which take place outside Dublin, particularly in key areas such as Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Mayo. In Waterford, this week, we have a celebration in Lismore of the father of chemistry, Mr. Robert Boyle. It is very important this year which is also international year of chemistry.

Particular allies for us, because of inclusiveness, would be libraries given that our programme is on the Internet only. We do not publish it. In the past it cost us a large amount of money to publish it in the Irish Independent. For inclusiveness, how does one know what is on if one does not have access? Access is through the libraries. Because of that libraries are running their own events - they get the people in and that helps that particular information channel.

We have also a series of lectures which we podcast. For example, this evening, we have Luke O'Neill, a Dubliner, who is the expert and professor of immunology in Trinity College. That will be podcast, so we want to get out to everybody. I have also included in the presentation what we are otherwise involved in, including primary science but, particularly, science at second level. We are working with the VECs to highlight and look at new ways of assessing the junior certificate. That is where there will be a breakthrough. As the committee will the aware the Minister for Education and Skills is seeking initiatives and with particularly the VEC in Kildare, one might call it, silicon technology because of the presence of HP and Intel.

The additional focus this year is on mathematics and engineering. We are funding the STEPS programme, that is, the engineers of Ireland programme, at more than €750,000. We give quite an amount of our value away but at the same time we are leveraging at three to one and our target is for four to one this year. We are associated with the national programme that is worth approximately €10 million, raising the profile of STEM. It is driven by policy papers and work, particularly from groups such as Forfás where we have the skills group, the expert group on future skills and the competitiveness group and we are continuously reviewed and evaluated by various accountants in terms of value for money.

I would like to leave the committee with the idea that fundamentally we are working in partnership. Our focus, this year and next year, is working in partnership with business. Just as previous speakers have said it is about business and enterprise opening their doors and showing what the context is like to work in business. That is what is missing. While we have excellent design in new curricula what we need is for children to be able to imagine what it is like to work in business. Many of them, perhaps falsely, think they know what it is like to be a doctor or a solicitor but they do not know what it is like to work in business. That is our focus and the reason I was with Microsoft and SAP yesterday and, hopefully, with Abbot and Intel next week. There is an initiative which will support a business-led initiative. I will be pleased to speak at another time on that initiative.

Have members any comments or questions?

I will read the document. At school level, are the appropriate science subjects taught and is enough effort being put into science? I do know the statistics for the numbers who study science. We do chemistry and biology up to third level. What success rates are there for people leaving third level with science degrees in comparison with other countries in Europe?

Mr. Peter Brabazon

The overall statistic in terms of the number of scientists or engineers we produce per 100,000 people is effectively almost the highest in Europe. The problem is that the type of businesses and industries we have are at the highest level. In other words, we are seeking to have a knowledge economy so we need them. There are issues around the numbers taking up higher level mathematics and physics and chemistry, the so-called physical sciences. A total of 50% of children do the leaving certificate biology examination, which is a very important area because it is a real opportunity area, especially in medical devices and so forth, but the figure is lower for physics, particularly for engineering. That is a problem. Whereas our overall statistics are good, our balance in terms of the number of engineers we are producing is lower. If a European country has 2:1 in favour of engineering, it is the other way around here in favour of science. There are underlying factors there, and then one looks at the other issues.

A good thing that has happened, and we are now only beginning to see the benefit of it, is that since 2002 science has been reintroduced at primary level. The change in the curriculum at junior certificate level in 2006 puts more emphasis on project work. Unfortunately, however, 60% of the applications for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition are being refused to show their projects. We set up another project with Intel, called SciFest, in which there were more than 1,000 projects from 3,000 children this year and every one of them was displayed in an institute of technology. We are looking at doing that with business, which is part of the working with business approach.

I briefly read some material on the Internet before coming to the meeting. It mentioned that where there were difficulties with science subjects in places such as England, France and Germany, they tended to make the subject a fun subject to entice children at primary level to become involved in science projects and so forth. We have an excellent science museum which I have visited. However, countries such as England, France and Germany put huge funding into on-site projects in major cities to entice schoolchildren. It would not simply be a project that one visited once a year. Let us consider the number of science museums throughout Europe in comparison with Ireland. It is such a valuable subject. I accept there is a huge cost factor but all the statistics apparently show it has encouraged more people. If there is a science museum in a particular area which children can visit and in which they can do project work or even see the artefacts or whatever that are in the facility, it leads to a dramatic increase in the number of people becoming involved in science education and so forth.

Mr. Peter Brabazon

I agree. In fact, 75% of learning happens outside school, so people need places to go. That is fundamentally why we are working with business. Businesses are opening their doors and sending their own people out.

With regard to science centres and other locations, what we have done in Ireland is quite clever. There is mixed opinion as to whether they work. Austria, for example, does not have one, yet Vienna was in the competition for city of science for next year. We won so it will be Dublin City of Science in 2012. We have other locations, such as the Natural History Museum, which are excellent. What we have done, especially at primary level where the fun side mentioned by the Deputy applies, is engage with what we call science centres throughout the country. It is making places such as the zoo or the Blackrock Castle Observatory, the excellent facility in Cork, run programmes which we sign off on.

While we are straitened in terms of the finances for a science museum for that age group, although we have one for the older age group in the Science Gallery, we can look at alternatives. We are doing that very successfully. Ultimately, the only problem with science museums, and I happen to be on the board of a potential one for Ireland, is the potential cost to the State of running them. Even as charities they have a big problem in that sense. Typically, they need over 40% funding from others. That is the experience in the United States and in Europe, so they can sometimes be a drain.

Is Mr. Brabazon involved in the teacher training colleges? Does he give lectures and courses there? One of the qualifications primary school teachers must have is Irish. They cannot teach in a primary school unless they have Irish. If our policy is to move towards creating jobs at the end of the education spectrum, science and mathematics would be part of that.

Mr. Peter Brabazon

What we do is pilot change. We are talking about educational and behavioural change here. What we do at the primary level, and this is where we made our name, is Discover Primary Science and Mathematics. We trained 5,000 teachers; we gave them induction courses. We are moving away from that now and we have put it into the curricula of approximately seven teacher education centres. We started a pilot project with Froebel College of Education, and it is now an elective there. We are working hand in hand with St. Patrick's College. It is a partner in a European project with us at present. However, we are only six people. We are project managers. We put the package together and got it to a successful point as a pilot project. We had a pilot project with 5,000 teachers, but it is still a pilot project when there is a total of 60,000 teachers in primary and second level. It really has been taken up. It is in the Marino Institute of Education and we are talking to Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. "Yes" is the answer to the Deputy's question, and now our focus is on second level to see what we can do there.

Are we good at identifying or streaming the children who have a talent for the sciences? Is the system good at supporting those children? Mr. Brabazon referred to companies such as Microsoft, Intel and so forth. Is he pushing at an open door with those companies in terms of their support and their bringing in children who possibly have talent in that area?

Mr. Peter Brabazon

On the first question, the problem is that children sometimes do not know what an area is like. With regard to streaming, we must also be mindful of the other word: inclusiveness. What we are trying to do this week is show most children, and there will be approximately 115,000 direct participants, what is going on in this area. If children have skills, they will inevitably come to the top anyway. Now, through projects such as SciFest and Discover Primary Science and Mathematics, they actually get to do something in that area.

We have a project for primary level, for example, which is highlighting the arrival of spring and keeps to what the children do. They grow plants and that is where they learn science by stealth. They do not realise it but they are using the scientific method by observing, recording, reporting and analysing. In conversation with children, they might be thinking of doing hairdressing, because that is all they know, but we can get them involved. Girls outnumber boys two to one in project work in SciFest, for example. Generally that is not the case. Typically, only 10% of engineers are girls. This project is opening doors and showing children what is happening.

It is tricky to use the word "streaming". Obviously that happens anyway but there are groups we work with, for example, the Centre for Talented Youth in DCU which does outsourcing as well, that look for intelligent children. However, it is not just for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM. That is important. Even if children went to Microsoft or DCU yesterday and found out they did not like science and engineering, that would be good as well because there are so many other opportunities. What we want to do is get the ones who might have been overlooked in the past. One cannot fit square pegs in round holes and so forth.

What was the Deputy's second question?

Mr. Brabazon mentioned Microsoft, Intel and so forth. Is he pushing an open door with many of those companies? It makes sense that they would open their premises. It would spark that interest in children.

Mr. Peter Brabazon

I hope it is an open door. What we bring is co-ordination because they want us to map out what is happening by industry in order that they can see what each is doing to prevent doubling up on the same effort and make it more efficient. What we want to do, with taxpayers' money in our back pocket, is to get at each kid. While in the past the Intels of this world might just have been thinking of their local communities to an extent, in the future they really should be viewing people in the furthest parts of the country as potential workers. It was great to hear previous speakers mention a figure of 5,000 jobs, particularly in the information technology sector, but we want to harness that sector to support the theme that there are science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, careers. It is true that many people do not know about the opportunities available and to this end, we have been working with ICT Ireland, in particular. We conducted a communications campaign during the summer simply to state what the opportunities were, as this business is afraid to use the word "opportunity" because it sounds as though Ireland cannot provide the raw material in terms of people.

I have a question regarding career guidance in schools. Is it strong enough or must more work be done in this regard? Does Discover Science and Engineering engage with career guidance teachers? My impression is that pupils entering their first year in secondary school are interested in some science subjects because they appear interesting but that thereafter the work rate involved might scare them off. Perhaps I am wrong, but does Mr. Brabazon think there is a lack of interest initially? Experience suggests there is and if nothing else, there is an inquisitiveness about what happens in the biology room or the chemistry room. Pupils' attention must be grabbed sooner at that point because thereafter they appear to slip through and turn away.

Mr. Peter Brabazon: This is where the great focus on primary level has worked; the focus should now be placed on second level. As for career guidance, it is an important subject. There are literally hundreds of courses available because most kids now go on to third level - the figure is approximately 70% in one way or another. Consequently, it is impossible for a career guidance counsellor who spends two thirds of his or her time on counselling to give the actual advice for several reasons and because it is such a big sector. In addition, parents in Ireland, in particular, do not tend to have a third level qualification, but their kids will acquire one. Ireland has the biggest gap to close in this regard within the OECD, which means parents do not have that experience. Moreover, at most, only one quarter of grandparents have one. The same applies to career guidance as many career guidance teachers tend to be in mid-career and consequently do not have experience of working in a factory.

Among the main recent developments, obviously there is QualifaX with regard to courses and so on, but which we support highlights through the use of small video clips and so on what it is actually like to go into an industry and, more importantly, what it is like to go into a third level institution. This is important because if one is being honest, in common with most kids, most of us who went to third level did not really think about long-term careers when sitting the leaving certificate examination but about what it would be like at third level. Consequently, one must stay in tune with their real needs. I repeat that kids' ingenuity or creativity is exactly the same as in the arts. Some of those who think they are good at art will end up in technology companies and be highly successful. This merging of areas constitutes another problem for career guidance teachers because they often think, for example, of an engineer like me as someone who fixes cars. No, I do not. I worked in the information, communications and technology and energy sectors for a long time.

On behalf of the joint committee, I thank Mr. Brabazon for briefing members on Science Week Ireland 2011. While we are halfway through it, I hope it works out well. The committee will probably engage further with Discover Science and Engineering in the future because developing science and engineering in schools is on our work agenda. Consequently, the committee will be talking to Mr. Brabazon and his organisation again.

Mr. Peter Brabazon

I thank the Chairman. I have provided information packs indicating what is happening in members' local areas also.

The packs will be circulated to all members. Those who are not present have stated they will read the transcript of the proceedings.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.05 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 November 2011.