Inspiring the next generation in STEM

In the final part of our series on the Atlantic Social Lab, we look at the work of STEAM Education Ltd, founded over five years ago
Inspiring the next generation in STEM
Dr. Alice D’Arcy, centre, is Managing Director of STEAM Education. Alice has been involved with STEAM since it was founded in 2014. Pic: Diane Cusack

“THE majority of jobs people will do in 10, 25 or 40 years’ time don’t even exist today!”

Most of us have heard a prediction like this about the near-future labour market. And many a concerned parent hearing this will ask themselves “Just what will little Róisín do when she grows up?”

At least part of the answer lies in providing the next generations with opportunities and training in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — collectively known as STEM — because they will provide the vital skills base for most of these as-yet-unknown jobs.

Heads of industry and government officials alike tell us that we must improve our output of STEM graduates, in order to keep pace with needs of the burgeoning information society we now live in. And they are investing vast sums in encouraging young adults to consider STEM as a career choice.

One Cork company is intervening at a younger age, however, and with significant focus on the inclusion of Arts. STEAM Education Ltd was founded just over five years ago, with the aim of bringing STEM+Arts subjects to the junior school cycle.

Dr Alice D’Arcy, Managing Director, explains the company’s mission: “STEM subjects are frequently misrepresented as being dull, non-creative or overly difficult; while the arts are considered by many the preserve of only a creatively-gifted few. STEAM Education programmes aim to change these misconceptions through fun, practical learning which engages both creative and critical thinking. We also focus on the development of essential skills like communication, collaboration, and problem solving.

“Additionally, international research points to early intervention (pre-teen) being critical to the long-term development of young people, and leading to increased engagement with STEM subjects.”

STEAM Education offer a variety of 10-week programmes to primary schools, with lessons tailored to the age group being taught. Every lesson has at least one hands-on, creative activity for the students, giving them immediate practical knowledge of the principles being explored. These activities vary according to subject — from identifying common traits across species, to building bridges at a model scale, to designing working remote-controlled robots. The unique blend of fun and learning engages the young students in a way that rote instruction rarely can.

Dr. Alice D’Arcy is Managing Director of STEAM Education. Picture: Diane Cusack
Dr. Alice D’Arcy is Managing Director of STEAM Education. Picture: Diane Cusack

Parents, teachers and students alike are enthused by this approach. As Patricia O’Donovan, 6th class teacher at St Mary’s on the Hill in Knocknaheeny, put it: “Our experience with Science in a Box continues to create a ripple of excitement among the 6th class students. The well-prepared, interesting and hands-on lessons give each child, regardless of their ability, an equal opportunity to participate, question and offer opinions.

“Concepts and symbols, which would otherwise remain hollow and futile, are brought to life in an engaging way. The STEAM experience continues to impress.”

Now, you may well be thinking “All of this – course design, co-teacher training, lesson materials –must cost something, and our schools are stretched to the limit already!” Indeed so, and this is where industry enters the picture. Responsible corporate leaders are not just seeking to increase the pool of graduates who meet their skills needs. They also contribute to their local community through outreach and social engagement, and most multinational and larger indigenous companies have special budgets for this. Getting these companies to sponsor schools in their locality is how it all comes together.

The other significant innovation of the educational approach lies in the actual teaching of the subject. Rather than expecting primary teachers to do all of this on their own, STEAM send industry professionals from the sponsoring companies into the classroom, to co-teach the programmes with the class teacher. This brings real-life working expertise directly to the young students, most of whom will never have met a genuine Process Engineer, Tool Machinist, Biochemist, etc.

It also gives the co-teacher valuable experience of being a trainer in a challenging, rewarding environment outside of their normal “daily grind”.

Thomas O’Connell, Communications/Business Development with SISK Building Contractors co-taught STEAM’s “Engineering in a Box” programme in Ballygarvan National School last year.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching experience with STEAM. The kids responded with enthusiasm and ingenuity to our practical projects and worked well together in a positive and fun environment. It was a great experience!” said Thomas.

Smaller local enterprises also sponsor these programmes, while the single biggest supporter of STEAM’s activities is the Naughton Foundation, who have been onboard from the very beginning.

Local Authorities are engaged too, with Cork City, Fingal County and Galway County councils all harnessing the expertise to deliver STEM programmes to disadvantaged schools in their catchments.

Support from Cork City Council’s RAPID initiative along with Cork City Partnership and the Learning Neighbourhoods scheme has brought the magic of STEAM’s programmes to seven DEIS schools in the city.

“The kids really love the hands-on programmes, and their interaction with scientists and engineers opens up a world of opportunities for them that they may not have previously considered. We believe it greatly encourages these kids to consider STEM careers and to progress to second and third level education”, according to Sandra O’Meara, Rapid Coordinator at Cork City Council.

County Councils, and indeed some companies, often simply don’t have specialists available to commit to a ten-week programme, but they can still participate through “fostering” a school, whereby STEAM sends a field-relevant postgraduate to deliver the programme on the sponsor’s behalf. And they are no less enthusiastic about the results.

“The boys and girls are very intuitive and are not afraid to ask 101 questions”, says Jessica Eivers, scientist and co-teacher for STEAM’s Science- in-a-Box programme with St. Mary’s on the Hill NS.

“One girl said she would love to be a scientist for a day. This programme could be shaping this girl’s future, which is the greatest gift to come from this.”

If you are interested in working with STEAM Education you can find them at: STEAM Education 2.29 GATEWAY UCC Western Gateway Building Western Road , Cork 0214205437 / 0876189837 www.steam-ed.ie https://www.facebook.com/STEAMEDUCATIONLTD/ https://twitter.com/

Dr. Alice D’Arcy is Managing Director of STEAM Education. Alice has been involved with STEAM since it was founded in 2014. She manages the company and is also fully involved in the development and training of all STEAM programmes. Her background is in the area of environmental and sustainability science and creative education.

STEAM Education is one of many social enterprises across Cork benefiting from the supports being provided by Cork City Council through it’s EU funded Atlantic SocialLab Project. You can find out more about the Atlantic Social Lab project by going to www.atlanticsociallab.eu or emailing Juliette_Crowley@corkcity.ie.

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