In Conversation with Minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy T.D.

With just a few weeks to go until Science Week kicks off, we caught up with friend to the Midlands Science Festival, Minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy T.D. Minister of State for Health Promotion to talk about the importance of science education promotion, national STEM initiatives and what we can be doing to encourage a love for science at as early an age as possible.

In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in investment in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education from government to engage young people with STEM but the number of people applying to STEM courses still needs to be increased. Is there enough being done to make schools/teachers aware of the importance of the national STEM agenda?
I think it is great to see an increase in the number of people applying to STEM courses. Initiatives like Science Week, Smart Futures and the brilliant work being done by Science Foundation Ireland are helping to improve public engagement and an increased uptake in STEM education courses. Of course there is always room for improvement but significant work is being done by the Department of Education and Skills to encourage increase participation in STEM courses.
The Department launched the National Skills Strategy 2025 in January 2016. The purpose of this strategy is to provide a framework for skills development to drive Ireland’s economic growth over the next 10 years.
A significant element of this strategy is to raise awareness of STEM courses and careers through innovative initiatives as mentioned above. This strategy also envisages a review of how STEM courses can be further incentivised and supported in Higher Education. A review is also going to be carried out on career guidance services and how STEM courses are promoted in schools particularly to female students.
In our work we have noticed the impact inspiring teachers can have on attitudes towards science. Do you think we could be doing more about primary level to encourage a love for STEM at an earlier age?

All of us remember the most inspiring teachers during our time in school and if teachers are passionate and engaged in STEM subjects then this will encourage children in Primary Education to engage with STEM.
Science Foundation Ireland runs a very successful programme called Discover Primary Science and Maths (DPSM) which supports teachers to advance science, technology, engineering and maths in schools and to make them more stimulating, relevant and visual for children.
In 2015/2016 over 800 teachers participated in a programme of Continuous Professional Development for STEM course. Over 500 schools participate in the Awards of Science and Maths Excellence which encourages and rewards schools for promoting STEM.
The Discover Primary Science and Maths (DPSM) programme has a network of 56 Science Foundation Ireland ‘Discover Centres’ that provide engaging science education outside the classroom environment. These centres include Dublin Zoo, National Parks, observatories and aquariums.

The challenge of attracting girls into STEM continues. What are the barriers do you think – Is it difficult subject syllabus, lack of career guidance or the perception that these subjects are still more male dominated?
This is no doubt a challenge for policymakers to change the perception of STEM carriers as being women friendly and in fairness I think progress is being made in this regard.
Smart Futures is a Government and Industry supported education programme supporting STEM careers in Secondary Schools and among career guidance teachers in Ireland. Smart Futures is working with Connecting Women in Technology (CWIT) to encourage more women to choose STEM career options.

A recent survey by Smart Futures found 65% of undergraduate women found ‘fitting in’ to be the most important factor when choosing a third-level degree programme. This highlights the importance of tackling negative stereotypes of STEM careers which can discourage women from making that first step towards a career in STEM. There are positive changes being made and the survey showed that initiatives like Science Week are helping to change the negative stereotypes. I also think it is hugely important for potential STEM students to be inspired by positive role models like the famous female scientist Mary Ward from my own hometown in Ferbane in County Offaly.
Smart Futures is a Government-industry initiative providing access to STEM careers information and role models to second-level students, parents, teachers and careers guidance staff. For this to succeed, volunteers are necessary. What would you say to encourage more people to get involved in this initiative to change perceptions of careers in STEM?
I would encourage all schools to engage with Smart Futures programme. As discussed above it is making significant progress in promoting STEM in schools at every level.

Exciting new science curriculums at second level are scheduled to be introduced over the coming years, will this make a difference to securing the next generation of scientists and engineers in your view?
If the image of careers in STEM being the preserve of ‘nerdy’ students and not for everybody then the new science curriculums proposed for Secondary Schools will need to inspire students who in the past may have made alternative careers choices. Careers in STEM can be extremely rewarding and they are among the best paid careers in the country. Every effort must be made to educate the next generation of the hugely varied career opportunities within the STEM sector.