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”.
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!