#STEMCon: Cars, ducks & stemists

Early starts are something I not only avoid but usually am incapable of. So what possessed me to get up at 6.15am yesterday? LEGO, Sesame Streetand Audi Sport! These were among the diverse array of topics at the Atlantic Conference on STEM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) which took place in Tullamore yesterday. Reflecting on the talks I found that despite speakers being from different industries and areas of science, similar themes prevailed over the course of the day.

Converting students into innovators

The practical application of science education and research was emphasised. Seán Sherlock, Minister for Research and Innovation, stressed how important it was to “ensure the students that are going through the system now will be world-class innovators”. John Hennessy of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) went one step further to say that “Ireland’s education system is the bedrock for economic recovery”.

Leo Enright, Carol Lynn Parente, Seán Sherlock TD and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy TD

Comments such as these from the Minister and HEA are unquestionably true but there was much debate about how to improve out current curriculum in order to achieve these ambitions. One challenge that was identified was the inflexibility of the current secondary curriculum. From the discussion, transition year seems to be the main opportunity that students have to explore new initiatives such as Scratch Programming and competitions such as Young Scientist.

Mark Watson explored this area in detail when he spoke about a STEM programme he works on in the US, the National Flight Academy. This is a lab-based programme which encompasses STEM through simulations of real-life and futuristic scenarios. An example of one programme which took place prior to the Japan tsunami was a tsunami simulation where students had to shut down a nuclear power plant and evacuate the local towns. This model involves “integrating labs that apply the knowledge gained through traditional maths and science courses into skills the students want to learn”. Perhaps this combination of traditional subjects and engaging labs could be a way around the rigid Irish curriculum.

Throughout the conference many speakers mentioned the importance of real-life application in STEM education. Tony Hill who transformed the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) into an interactive Science Centre, highlighted this. Graphene has recently been added to the electron microscope exhibit in MOSI and this is a great example of keeping up to date with new research and industry. Graphene is a single atom thick graphite product and could be the strongest lightest material in the world. This captures children’s imagination as they become the researchers seeking ways to use this new material.

It was great to hear what students of Gallen Community School thought about STEM in the Q&A session. They presented their ideas on developing STEM and identified a need to foster a passion for these subjects early. To address this, they will be implementing a voluntary STEM club across all of the years as well as collaborating with parents, the community, national and international groups.

Transferring research into industry

Prof. Fergal O’Brien of RCSI spoke about his journey from basic science to innovative and commercial breakthroughs. He works in a fascinating area of biotechnology; regenerative medicine. O’Brien’s team can repair damaged tissue by growing new tissue in the lab. Using collagen-based scaffolds, stem cells and nanotechnology to build bone, his team have developed a substitute for the traditional bone graft. Further research produced a material specifically for cartilage repair. These were both patented and a company, SurgaColl, was formed by the group. This led to more success and yet another patent. This time it was for an amazing product which can turn the scaffold into any tissue in the body using nanoparticles to transfer a gene of interest into the stem cells.

One of the keys to O’Brien’s success was his multidisciplinary team and collaborative partners. His group includes a stem cell biologist, clinician, physicist, gene therapist, life scientist, pharmacist, as well as trainee surgeons, trainee clinicians and engineers. His own career has encompassed engineering, science and medicine. “This type of work requires an extensive collaboration network… We try to exchange ideas and achieve scientific breakthroughs”.

LEGO is up next… Check out the video below that integrates LEGO robotics and bone building technology!

Imagination and creativity

We all learnt a valuable lesson during Ward Van Duffel’s talk on LEGO’s STEM programme. Our eyes lit up as we were all given a little packet with 6 pieces of LEGO. This quickly turned to intense concentration as we were instructed to make a duck in 30 seconds. 5-4-3-2-1-STOP! We look around and realise that we have all made different ducks. Duffel emphasises that instead of asking “What is the answer”, teachers need to ask “What are the answers?”.

Both LEGO and Sesame Street approach STEM Education in a similar way: Learning through mistakes. Van Duffel talked about how making mistakes is crucial for children to learn. Sesame Street covered STEM on their curriculum last year and new improved Super Grover 2.0 was the main STEM character. Instead of spouting facts and figures, he solved problems with trial and error, crashing into a mountain or two along the way.

Sesame Street Producer, Carol Lynn Parente (right), was the keynote speaker and was delighted by the positive feedback the STEM season had received. “This year… we had more press for the fact we covered STEM as a curriculum than for celebrity appearances. STEM is actually sexier than we thought”. In true Sesame Street style, we learnt two new words for the day: Stemist (aka Super Grover 2.0) and STEAM (STEM with Arts and this years Sesame Street theme). I’m sure they’ll catch on this side of the water pretty soon!


Finally, I want to end this extra long Science Calling conference special with a truly inspirational story. Leena Gade arrived in style; the doors opened, the sound of an engine filled the room and suddenly a race car was beside the stage. Gade brought us through the long hard journey she took to motor sport. She had an interest in engineering from a young age and remembers at age 12 spending “a lot of time taking apart and putting back together my parents precious things”. After college, she applied to 150+ motor sport companies to no avail. She worked for 8 years in the automotive industry and was committed to realising her dream by working for free with racing teams on weekends.

Her unpaid labour paid off as she joined Audi Sport to become an engineer on their endurance racing cars. Last year, she was promoted to race engineer and had the task of engineering a car for the endurance race of the year, Le Mons. This race goes on for 24 hours and the mileage covered is equivalent to an entire Formula One year. After a long and gruelling race, she became the first women to engineer a car and lead a race win at Le Mons.

Gade’s talk showed me that having inspirational role models is critical. Earlier in the day, a show of hands revealed only a handful of guys from Gallen Community School were interested in going on to study engineering. There was little to no enthusiasm from the girls. Twitter revealed the change in perspective by the girls after Gade had spoken. One female student said “That Audi talk by Leena was class! Motor Sport engineering is unreal”, and another remarked, “Really love to do motor sport now”. I’ve a feeling the students first STEM club project might have something to do with motor racing (pictured below with Leena Gade).

One thought on “#STEMCon: Cars, ducks & stemists

  1. Whole conference was obviously really interesting. Being up at 6.15 am, travelling the whole way to Tullamore and paying attention all day must have left you completely wrecked- not alone writing your article for today which was definitely an in depth commentary on the day’s proceedings. Brilliant. Well done and get some rest!

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