Helping Ireland’s youth envision a future in STEM
Education researchers have found that the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) gap in Ireland emerges as early as primary school. A study in the UK found that 27 percent of youth aged 11 to 17—most of them in under-resourced schools and communities—have low “science capital,” defined as scientific aspiration and engagement. Working-class girls are most likely to lose interest in STEM around this age; they are 50 percent less likely to pursue STEM education and 80 percent less likely to pursue a STEM career, says Niall Morahan, founder of STEMpathy.
Engaging all learners with real-world science and engineering
Morahan founded STEMpathy to engage students of all backgrounds and learning styles in science, engineering, technology, and math at the critical age of 10 to 12, and Microsoft supplied a grant to support their work. “Education currently caters to a certain type of learner,” explains Morahan. “Others get left out because of systemic inequality and disadvantage or different learning styles.” To reach and inspire all students, Morahan teamed up with other designers to develop Fiosracht (“curiosity” in Irish), a learning module that brings together students and STEM professionals to solve real-world problems.
On day one, the class meets experts such as an official from Dublin City Planning unit and a Microsoft engineer. These experts set a real-world challenge for the students to solve, and explain how the world is changing, what planning challenges they face, and what they do in their jobs to meet these challenges. For example, in the West Dublin pilot a city planning official challenged students to design the city of the future—Dublin 2050. Students were tasked with designing housing, transportation, and clothing in light of climate change and population growth.
Following this initial presentation, students choose a challenge to tackle together. A designer or engineer works alongside them to guide their thinking and offer resources, but the students take the lead. The design process begins with empathy, as students imagine the human needs for which they are solving. One class, for example, attempted simple tasks with fogged glasses and Vaseline-covered gloves to better understand the challenges of people with limited vision and dexterity.
Next, students prototype solutions using STEM resources. Design thinking is an important part of the program—students learn that there is no wrong approach because mistakes are a valuable part of the design process.
Finally, students showcase their work for the school community, building presentation skills and receiving expert feedback on their ideas.
“Education currently caters to a certain type of learner. Others get left out because of systemic inequality and disadvantage or different learning styles.”—Niall Morahan, STEMpathy founder
Inspiring the next generation to imagine their future
STEMpathy’s Fiosracht project engages students by building community, both with each other and with the broader world whose problems they are imagining and solving. “Students’ knowledge and motivation are activated when they have an applied project,” observes Morahan. “We kept hearing from teachers that students who had never said anything in class were now suddenly motivated and doing well.”
The open-ended nature of the project also activates students’ creativity. Councillor Guss O’Connell of the South Dublin County Council notes, “What I especially like about Fiosracht is that it has no boundaries. The futuristic world imagined and produced in model form by the young people is just fantastic. The adult mentors were there to assist and support but definitely not to judge or build boundaries or barriers. And it worked.” Creative thinking empowers students and positions them for future leadership roles.
STEMpathy has already delivered the Fiosracht program in four pilot schools in West Dublin, reaching 500 kids. The goal is to bring the program to all 300 schools participating in Ireland Department of Education’s Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) initiative, ultimately reaching 32,000 kids either directly or indirectly. With a grant from Microsoft, STEMpathy will be able to create digital versions of the training and develop materials to support teachers in running the program in their classrooms. STEMpathy is currently set to expand nationally as part of the Digital Wealth program, founded by Maynooth University’s Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan and delivered in partnership with Microsoft Education Ireland. This next iteration of in-class delivery will help the STEMpathy team streamline the curriculum and make it digitally deliverable.
With this expansion, STEMpathy will be able to build up the digital capital of even more students who might not otherwise see a role for themselves in shaping the future.
“What I especially like about Fiosracht is that it has no boundaries.”—Guss O’Connell, Councillor, South Dublin County Council