Professor Hamsa Venkat was appointed as the Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education at DCU in 2022. The Chair was created thanks to the generosity and vision of the Naughton Family Foundation.
Professor Venkat holds the first chair in STEM education in Ireland to focus on primary and early childhood education, and one of only a few such positions across the world. Her research focuses on primary mathematics teaching, learning, curriculum and policy, with a particular interest in interventions.
Hamsa began her career in education as a high school maths teacher, before completing her PhD in London – for which she won the 2005 British Educational Research Association award – and moving into teacher education. Before joining DCU’s Institute of Education, she held the SA Numeracy Chair at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
What attracted you to the Naughton Family Chair in STEM Education position?
Primary mathematics tends to be seen as the poor relative of secondary mathematics – there’s this common misperception that secondary is where the real subject work happens. I first trained as a high school maths teacher, but when I began working in primary teacher education, I found that I loved my work with primary teachers.
I’m interested in bringing about change at scale in primary level education. My work in South Africa was in a very different terrain, one with huge inequality. My focus on interventions and taking them to scale came from that background. I was looking for a new opportunity at that level, something that would allow me to bring a team together and build something.
What attracted me to the Naughton Family Chair was the uniqueness of the role and the real push for STEM education in the Irish policy landscape. It’s something a lot of people like to talk about, but here it’s more than just political platitudes. There’s a real appetite for promoting STEM in early years and primary level. I could see that the position fitted well with the policy landscape. That’s a good place to start.
What are the research projects and initiatives you are currently focusing on – and what are your plans for the future?
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has developed a new draft primary curriculum, and our team is supporting that with a review of STEM literature in the primary space. As teachers and as parents, we like the idea of STEM, but there is confusion as to what STEM education is. It sounds exciting, workplace-relevant, life-relevant. This project is looking at how we can translate that into something that is exciting for students and practicable for schools.
We’ve also started a project on Integrated STEM Teaching. This brought together a group of education students from across different expertise areas and had them work together to share their knowledge. No one knows it all in STEM – I know more about maths than about digital learning. The group created a project about energy cycles and use, which is very topical in everyone’s lives today and really struck a chord with students. We’ll be analysing our results in the coming months, but an initial survey of students shows that their interest in this type of collaborative teaching increased over the course of the project.
I wanted to look at how we can get teachers enthusiastic and confident about teaching STEM in primary schools. We know that in teaching, confidence is important. It’s a predictor of how well you will teach, so it’s a lot to ask teachers to try something outside their expertise. This project gave education students a way to share their expertise with each other in a way that they can replicate in the classroom.
Beyond that, we want to look at the trajectories of STEM learning in education undergraduates. Historically, if you ask primary teachers what their least favourite subject was in school, they’ll often say maths or science. I want to try to understand what we as universities contribute to their learning. This is an area with international appetite and interest. We’re certainly not the only country with primary teachers who may be less enthusiastic about STEM while being very skilled at teaching.
I’m also planning an international collaboration on early preschool learning, and hoping to kick off a project working with early career academics around the world, especially women. We can use the expertise and resources we’ve built at DCU to bring together early career scholars, and support projects that they can bring back to their own institutions, further developing the global research base in STEM education.
What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for early STEM education in Ireland today?
I’ve seen some really interesting work in early years in Ireland, work that is highly supportive, even world-leading. I’ve had the good fortune to talk to skilled practitioners on the ground who recognise that the things that children say have potential and can be built on. A skilled interaction recognises the STEM potential of these daily interactions with children, building on their natural curiosity about the world. I want to find ways to take the skill we see in some practitioners on the ground to scale.
Our national performance is already good, so how do you make it world-beating? I think for that, you have to get children young and make STEM as natural as literacy. There is real potential for DCU and Ireland to make an impact here at an international level. My work as Chair is to discover how we might do that and how we can broaden that base of enthusiasm.
The challenges are international. Getting anyone to change their work practice is not an easy endeavour. We need to build teachers’ confidence to make change happen and do so in collaborative ways. I want to engage with individuals’ confidences, concerns, enthusiasms and reluctances to see how we can move forward. That’s animated my work for more than 15 years now.
It’s through teaching that we improve learning. Middle class children may have a wider base of opportunities, but for poorer children, school is their primary access to learning about STEM. That’s why STEM learning needs to be part of the school system.
What impact do you hope that your research will have on STEM education – and what are you most excited about?
If in five years our initial teacher training is better at preparing teachers for STEM, we’ll have achieved something really significant. There are also opportunities to make an impact on the in-service side, the policy side and the curriculum side. There’s a real possibility for DCU to be seen as an international hub for STEM education. I’m excited to launch our early careers project, then kick off some longer-term initiatives.
I love being in classrooms, so I’m looking forward to doing more of that this year too. Because school was interrupted during COVID-19, we were a bit slow getting into classrooms, but it’s hugely rewarding to see great examples of STEM teaching on the ground.