Tales from the LIYSF

This is a guest post from James O’Connor who is about to start his second year as a student on our Environmental Science and Technology course here in DCU.


LIYSF (London International Youth Science Forum) was an incredibly new and unique experience for me. I had not been abroad on my own before and have never had the opportunity to meet so many people from so many countries before. I made friends from places like Luxembourg, Canada, Australia and France. Our mutual interest was science and I found many people with very relatable ideals and philosophies as a result. One philosophy we shared was the importance of objective questioning, for example, one night myself and perhaps six others discussed the issue of self-driving cars in relation to accidents on the road. The sheer number of hypothetical questions posed was amazing and I think an eavesdropper could have confidently discerned that they were listening to a debate amongst scientists.

The lectures were diverse and kept with the underlying theme, ‘Science: Making Life Better’. I learnt about areas that I knew little about and was therefore blown away by the mind- bending complexity or simplicity described by the speakers of such lectures. I chose to attend a lecture on hydrogen fuel and was informed about how it may replace carbon based fuel and therefore mitigate the rising CO2 levels. This was surprisingly simple. I was inspired by it because my course is Environmental Science and I would like to work on science that benefits our species. Also, I attended a lecture on the Higgs Boson discovery and learnt about the astounding complexity involved in the Large Hadron Collider that propels the protons around a circumference of 27km and about ATLAS, the machine that records the collisions between the protons. A picture of the latter device was shown and a small circle was added in blue around a worker standing next to it to highlight the immense size of it.

I had plenty of conversations with people comparing our countries political systems, sports, secondary schools, universities, weather and alcohol prices. I was always amazed that at all the gatherings (lectures and social events) there were approximately 67 different countries represented, many with a unique language and many with a unique culture.

There was a science bazaar evening for which dozens of students presented a scientific project. Many areas of science were represented that I did not appreciate before and this was very overwhelming. However, I realised that this was a fortunate evening where I could learn about previously unconquered territories of science. This was a highlight of the two weeks as it showed how passionate people of my age could be about science and it inspired me to become a more knowledgeable scientist.

The staff were very approachable and seemed as excited as all of us despite having already attended the forum. There were some great social events like the international cabaret and the traditions of home that were made great because of the contributions from the staff. Furthermore, the cabaret and traditions of home were particularly entertaining due to the wide array of performances. A New Zealander performing the Haka was one of many performances.

Lastly, I got to go to the British Antarctic Survey which is a research institute in Cambridge which studies the Antarctic and was the institute that discovered the hole in the ozone layer. This was a very memorable visit because we got to talk to researchers about their work in an area that interests me. I got a sense of what I could be doing with my degree and that is one of the things I hoped this forum would provide me.


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The Leaving Cert and that Google memo

The recent furore over the Google gender memo has all been a bit tedious. It’s boring to say it but nearly everything in life is a mix of nurture and nature and to adopt an ideological stance on what are extremely complex questions is not going to get you anywhere except perhaps into an endless argument on Twitter.

Anyway, here’s some data for Ireland’s school-leaving class of 2012. The data shows the % uptake by girls in the major subjects (honours level). Note that the numbers for maths may well be inflated by the fact that bonus points are awarded for higher level maths and many of the university courses that are dominated by women demand very high points, so girls tend to be under a lot of pressure to get every point they can. Note also that ICT is not yet on the Irish Leaving Cert curriculum so most students who study ICT at university level will have taken a bit of a punt unless they’ve been in a coding club, or whatever. Finally it’s worth noting that the engineering curriculum is dominated by aspects of mechanical engineering and it looks dead boring to me.

Although I personally believe that there plenty of innate behavioural differences between men and women, I challenge anyone to come up with an explanation for these numbers that is based on innate differences only. For example, is chemistry so different from physics as to be so much more attractive to the so-called “female brain”. Is it tenable to suggest that women are biologically primed to be more interested than men in Music and Art, or to prefer Accounting over Economics, or to be so much more interested in languages than men? I doubt it and I suspect that the choices that boys and girls make at school are influenced by all sorts of cultural, historical and logistical factors. And choices made at secondary school can have significant long term career consequences, at least in Ireland.


  % Female
Engineering 5
Applied Maths 23
Physics 27
Ag. Science 40
Maths 46
Chemistry 55
Biology 62


English 55
German 58
French 61
Irish 63
Spanish 64


Economics 33
Accounting 47
Business 51


Music 67
Art 68


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Women in STEM: a better way

One of our summer duties in DCU is to visit our students who are out on work placement – what we call our INTRA programme.  I generally find it to be an interesting experience especially when I visit the big multinational pharma companies. When I leave, I always breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that I work in the relatively free and open atmosphere of academia.  I often think that multinationals have a cult-like feel to them and my visits make me question the idea that companies want creative, original thinkers. In fact, I suspect they want competent workers who will buy into the company ethos and do things the company way. But that’s just my perception.

Anyway, my last visit was to a company who make chromatography columns – this was very much a chemistry-led company. The student I was visiting was working in the ‘Tech Ops’ department and his supervisor, the Tech Ops manager, happened to be an ex-student of mine. I had supervised her final year project so I remembered her well.

I got the usual tour of the facility and while all the tech stuff was interesting in its own way, what struck me was the fact that the majority of the employees (highly educated) that I met or passed in the corridor were female. The three process chemists that I chatted to were female as were the three analytical chemists that I met. I shook hands with quite a few people but not a single one of them was male. (That’s not to say that were no men around; there were but I got the sense that they were in the minority.)

And it struck me that the notion that there is a lack of “women in STEM” and the constant repetition of this mantra could in fact be counterproductive to the point of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know for sure that there is a lack of women in ICT, engineering (some branches being worse than others), maths and physics. But to extrapolate this to all of the disciplines that come under the STEM umbrella is simply wrong.

So instead of constantly repeating the message that there is a lack of women in ‘STEM’ and, in the process, sending out the message to young women that they mightn’t ‘fit in’, wouldn’t it be far better to emphasise the idea that the modern workplace is diverse and multidisciplinary. In some industries, there will be lots of women working in technical roles while in other there may not be. But even in industries where some of the tech roles remain male-dominated, people do not work in silos. Every company will offer, indeed demand, opportunities for interaction with fellow workers from different disciplines. And, in general, career progression will involve moving away from ones initial discipline into roles that demand a broader perspective. So just because you study physics at college doesn’t mean you’re going to be working in a male dominated environment for the rest of your career.

In other words, we need to be far more accurate in how we portray the career trajectories of STEM graduates – male and female. Then let people make fully informed decisions about the career path that they want to follow,

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A TEF for Ireland?

With the news that the minister is considering the introduction of a UK-style TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) it is worth considering some of the quality process that currently exist in the third level sector, specifically my university, DCU.

We have:

  • Annual Programme reviews (APRs)
  • Periodic Programme reviews (PPRs)
  • External Examiner Reports
  • School (department) Quality Reviews
  • Faculty Quality Reviews
  • Professional / Accreditation Reviews (where demanded by external bodies)
  • School Advisory Panels (typically initiated by schools themselves)
  • Student Surveys of Teaching (mandatory)
  • Student Representation on Programme Boards
  • Student Representation on Faculty Teaching Committee
  • Student Representation on Academic Council and University Standards Committee
  • Mandatory feedback (including viewing of scripts)  on exam results (when requested by student)

In addition we have the Irish Survey of Student Engagement

That seems like quite enough to me.

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Knowledge and problem solving

I experienced a really good example of why knowledge is an integral part of problem solving this morning.  One of my masters students comes to me with what seems to be an intractable programming (coding!) problem. He’s tearing his hair out.

When I check his program, I find that he has defined two separate but closely-related variables, namely x and x’. The result is that he’s getting error notifications and he’s fed up.

Being a chemist and given that it’s a while since he studied maths, he either doesn’t know or hasn’t remembered that x’ is sometimes used as shorthand for dx/dt and that’s what the software ‘thinks’ he’s trying to express. And the result is long, long hours of frustration.

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Are school-leavers rejecting science?

They are according to this article in the Examiner. However, let’s look at the data. The table below gives the number of first preferences for each ‘discipline’ after the February and July deadline. The % change is based on the February. Overall, there was an increase in total first preferences of 9.7% between February and July and that’s because many students express no preference in February – they effectively just get themselves registered on the system.

I’ll leave it up to you to make sense of all this.  However, it’s hard to make and argument that students are rejecting science. I suspect that if you look back over the last 5 to ten years, you’ll probably find that science is more or less at it’s natural level – and that doesn’t change a whole lot from year to year.

Incidentally, I wish the CAO would publish the July data on their website and do so every year. They do this for the February data so why not July? And why not put the data in Excel form?



July Feb % change
Built Environment 662 473 40.0
Engineering/Technology 7920 6838 15.8
Admin/Business 12750 11021 15.7
Arts 16485 14459 14.0
Ag/Hort 591 532 11.1
Dentistry 353 319 10.7
Science/Appl Science 9272 8503 9.0
Pharmacy 349 325 7.4
Education 4932 4686 5.2
Nursing 5620 5376 4.5
Law 2811 2694 4.3
Other Healthcare 2464 2369 4.0
Architecture 786 756 4.0
Art/Design 2348 2274 3.3
Physiotherapy 766 784 -2.3
Medicine 2937 3273 -10.3
Veterinary 549 612 -10.3
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Homework, Projects and Minecraft

We are all the product of our genes and life experiences and I suspect that my largely conservative views on education reflect the fact that traditional teacher-led, knowledge-rich education has had a transformational effect on my life.

The fact that education has been so kind to me means that I take it seriously – probably too seriously. So when I was driving in to work this morning listening to a discussion about homework on Newstalk Radio, I could feel my blood pressure rising. Then, as I sat in the Mater Hospital waiting for a blood test, flicking through Twitter as one does, I could feel it rising even higher.

Let’s take the Newstalk conversation first. The conversation centred on homework and whether it should be discontinued at primary level. Now, I’m not sure what the current state of thinking is regarding homework but aspects of the conversation worried me. The main guest who was herself a primary school principal (and, I think, head of the association of primary school principals) was suggesting that homework needs to challenge students in ways that the school day doesn’t and it should encompass things like physical exercise and especially the avoidance of screen time. She also raised concerns about the fact that disadvantaged students are, as you might expect, at a disadvantage when it comes to homework because they are more likely to lack the family supports and the home environment that more advantaged pupils have. She then suggested that the solution to the homework ‘problem’ was to make it more project-focused (building volcanoes was mentioned) in order to complement the more traditional learning done in class.

Now it seems to me that if you want to level the playing field, or if you want to limit screen time, assigning projects is the last thing you should do. Project work, which these days amounts to Googling and cutting and pasting, is likely to be far more problematic for kids from a disadvantaged background and is also likely to put far more stress on busy families.

What was also interesting about the discussion was that the word ‘practice’ was never mentioned. We take it for granted that homework in the form of practice is a key part of learning a musical instrument. Likewise, we accept that to become expert at any number of sports, practice is absolutely essential. Yet, when it comes to arithmetic, writing, spelling or reading or even art, we never use this word. I find it really strange that ideas and practices with which we are very comfortable in many walks of life, become ‘problematic’ when mentioned in the context of education. For some reason, many educators seem to be convinced that learning is a completely natural process that shouldn’t require the discipline and practice that music, sport, dance and art forms of all kinds require.

Having calmed down after the Newstalk interview, this article came across my timeline on Twitter. The conclusion of the article is that Minecraft helps children to:

  • To think things through.
  • To concentrate and develop a deep focus.
  • To use logic, problem-solving and goal-setting.
  • Learn from their mistakes.
  • To experiment.
  • To bring new pieces of knowledge together and use them in different ways.
  • Enjoy creativity because the game rewards it.
  • Co-operation and work with others.
  • Increase computer literacy.
  • Multi-task.

Now, I observe my son and his friends play video games all the time and I can safely say that all of the above apply equally to Super Mario Brothers, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale or any of the many games that he downloads onto my phone when I’m not looking. (Incidentally, the fact that kids develop a “deep focus” when playing computer games is a problem, not something to boast about.)

But here’s my view and I stress that it is a very personal one: play-learning with video games or Lego is not education. It’s the sort of thing you get your kids to do in a Summer camp. It’s a way of having your kids minded while doing something stimulating and vaguely educational. It doesn’t belong in the classroom. The skills you learn constructing worlds in Minecraft and completing levels in Super Mario or building Lego robots are very unlikely to transfer to other areas of life and there is a huge opportunity cost when using this approach to teaching and learning. But unfortunately we live in a time when engagement is equated with learning and this is no more evident than in the new super-discipline that we have decided to call STEM, a mish-mash of science and engineering where making structures out of spaghetti and marshmallows or making a metre-cubed out of toilet rolls is seen as an efficient and effective use of class time.

Of course, active play-learning is not necessarily all bad and only last week I saw a good example of it when my son attended an art summer camp. The theme of the camp was to create a comic-book character and what was good about it was that drawing time was interspersed with explicit instruction on developing characters, the use of fonts, shading, story-telling etc. The whole thing was focused and Leo came away having been ‘engaged’ but also having acquired very specific and tangible skills that will help in his development as an artist. Can we say such things about Lego or Minecraft or even Pokemon Go and fidget spinners? I don’t think so.

PS Leo is a doing a Lego Camp this week. He’s finding it engaging but the take-home…?

And meet Perry the Platypus


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