Tús maith, leath na hoibre. The Irish saying that ‘a good start is half the work’ is an apt motto for building students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and maths.
That’s because what and how children learn about maths and science in primary school shapes not only their competence but also their interest (or lack of interest) in STEM subjects as they move through secondary school and beyond.
This early experience is a key focus for Professor Hamsa Venkat, an expert in mathematics education who has taken up the newly created Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education at Dublin City University.
“We know that if children in primary school get turned off maths, it is really difficult to persuade them to stay doing maths. They struggle through it, and they drop it as soon as they can.,” says Professor Venkat. “And the same is true for science.”
Her new role will see Professor Venkat working with colleagues in the DCU Centre for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning (CASTeL), DCU Institute of Education, DCU Faculty of Science & Health and DCU Faculty of Engineering & Computing.
The aim? To build up the competence and confidence of primary and early-years teachers and their students across STEM subjects.
I (No Longer) Hate Maths
Professor Venkat had a positive experience of maths at school in London, and she followed her early ambition to become a mathematics teacher, working for several years before moving into research. Most recently she held a chair at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where much of her research looked at ways to encourage both competence and confidence in maths among students and teachers.
One of the initiatives, called ‘I Hate Maths’, recognises that teachers may fear maths and to help them develop their skills and enthusiasm without fear of reproach.
“We would have these very large events where we would focus on games and puzzles and people working together on a problem in an environment that very openly acknowledged that ‘I hate maths’ is a commonly expressed emotion,” explains Professor Venkat. “The intention was to get teachers working together in a fun [and] safe environment…to re-engage and say the work we do can be a huge amount of fun if we can get on top of the mathematics we want to teach and be confident and enthusiastic about it.”
Teamwork at DCU
One of the factors that attracted Professor Venkat to DCU is the strength of collaboration across disciplines on the early years of education.
“Early learning is not just about these little boxes of disciplines that we teach in school,” she says.
“[It] is about good maternal health, it is about good birth to 24 months and we know how critical it is to have parents supporting children during that period. So being able to work in teams who can come together and think about the interventions that we want to put into place, about the policies or curricula, I am really excited about working with a team that brings those expertises together, because I think that we can solve bigger problems that way.”
One of Professor Venkat’s aims in her role as Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education is to promote a ‘virtuous cycle’ of embedding STEM in wider culture through early education.
“There is a critique that what schooling teaches us is a lot of what we might call inert knowledge, knowledge that is not very usable because the minute we have done those exams and crammed for them if we need, we will have forgotten it because it is not seen as something that is usable in the world,” she explains.
Instead, she wants to integrate and empower STEM education in schools in a way that enables children to bring together STEM and other disciplines and skills to solve problems. This will pay dividends not only for building a workforce where people are talented in STEM disciplines, but it will also engender a wider society that values STEM and sees it as an integral part of communities and culture.
“I think if we can intervene early and intervene with young children, the payoff for that is if children can come home singing about ‘I did this in school in maths’, or ‘I did this in school in science’ or ‘I did this design project in school’, what we start to do is build a feedback loop into the home and into the community, and that enthusiasm is a catalyst for changing the perception that STEM subjects are hard and to be avoided.”
About the Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education
The Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education is the first in Ireland to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education at primary level and in early childhood education and will be based at DCU’s Institute of Education, Ireland’s only University Faculty of Education. The Institute is already home to the LEGO Innovation Studio that leads pioneering work on robotics for girls and young women and the world’s only Minecraft Education Suite focused on the development of engineering mindsets.
The Naughton Foundation was established by Martin and Carmel Naughton in 1994. It is a private family foundation and its goal is to support worthwhile causes in the arts and education. In 2008 they created the scholarship programme to increase their support for Leaving Certificate students who would like to study engineering, mathematics, science and technology at third level in Ireland. Originally, the scholarship programme only applied to students from counties Louth, Meath and Monaghan however it has now expanded nationwide and students from all counties in the Republic of Ireland are eligible to apply.
The DCU Institute of Education (IoE) represents the largest body of expertise in education in Ireland. The Institute delivers programmes in education and training, early childhood education and teacher education at all levels of the education continuum, providing graduates with the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to excel in a variety of educational contexts such as preschools, schools, vocational, adult and community settings.
The IoE has six constituent schools: School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies; School of Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education; School of Inclusive and Special Education; School of Arts Education and Movement; School of Policy and Practice; School of Human Development.
In establishing the Institute of Education, DCU has brought together Ireland’s leading colleges of education: the Church of Ireland College of Education, Mater Dei Institute of Education and St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra together with its own School of Education Studies to create the country’s first university Faculty of Education. Located on DCU St Patrick’s campus, it is home to internationally-recognised experts in teaching and learning who work closely with students in an innovative environment for 21st century learning.
Watch Professor Hamsa Venkat, Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education at DCU, in conversation with journalist Claire O’Connell here: