I can do science me

In a few days, Science Week Ireland will begin, bringing with it a host of lectures, demonstrations, and good, clean, scientific fun. The aim of Science Week is, in their own words, “to promote the relevance of science, engineering and technology in our everyday lives and to demonstrate the importance of these disciplines to the future development of Irish society and to the economy.” An excellent cause, I’m sure you’ll agree, as science impacts, in some way or another, on almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Maybe I’m biased – I’ve always loved science, from the first moment I stepped into a lab, beginning my secondary school education, to the moment when I donned cap and gown to graduate with a BSc. I have always believed that a basic understanding of science is an extremely important part of any education, even if the student does not go on to study science at a higher level. You can perhaps imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Science is not a compulsory subject at Junior Cert level.

I had always assumed that, while Leaving Cert science subjects were optional, Science as a subject was compulsory until Junior Cert. It seemed to make sense to me, considering that it’s an extremely useful subject, and that at least half (if not more) of all third level courses require at least one science subject to have been done at Leaving Cert level. I was honestly surprised to find that it is considered an optional subject in schools and is, as such, not a subject that schools are even obliged to offer to their students.

I have always felt that, for students just embarking upon their secondary education, one of the most difficult decisions that they must make is what subjects to study. After all, not studying Music, for example, at Junior Cert level will almost certainly preclude you from studying at Leaving Cert level, and similarly, will make attending a third level Music course nigh on impossible. By making certain subjects compulsory, schools hope to ensure that, regardless of what optional subjects a student takes, they can be sure to receive an education that is well rounded. How can any school not consider science to be a fundamental part of a student’s education, a subject that, at least until Junior Cert level, should be compulsory? Worse still, how can any school allow a student to begin their secondary level education with so many career options already closed off to them, and so many third level courses now beyond their scope, not due to inadequacy on the part of the student, but because the student may not be offered the opportunity to study science at all?

The goal of science week is to promote the relevance of science, something which, in my opinion, is even more important today than it has ever been before. The influence and impact that science and technology has on our lives has become so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible – who thinks of the detailed understanding of plant genetics necessary to produce viable crops when chopping tomatoes, or of the understanding of sound waves and their transmission when answering the phone? Surely it is crucial that people have some understanding of the world around us, steeped as it is in a rich history of scientific discovery and development.

The sad fact is that, perhaps because science is now so ubiquitous as to be commonplace, people no longer seem to feel the drive to study it. Uptake of study in various science courses remains consistently poor, and the rate of drop-off in science courses at third level is, frankly, embarrassing. I was, for example, one of just five students who took Computer Science in my 4th year in college. We shared a lab with students studying CSSE (Computer Science and Software Engineering), but between us all, we took up less than half of all the room allotted to us.

Almost without fail, when our politicians discuss the potential reasons why investors should choose Ireland, they will mention the high quality of our graduates, the progressive nature of our technology education, etc. If we are to live up to our reputation, we need to encourage people to study science, and enable them to do so. Those in charge of our curricula, namely, the Department of Education and Science, should make science education compulsory, and ensure that any student’s interest in science is not nipped in the bud before they’ve even reached their teens.

If you know someone who is starting secondary education, ensure that their school does offer Science as a Junior Cert subject, and encourage them to study it. Doing so will open up a world of possibilities, both in terms of career options, and further study options. If you know of a school that does not offer Science as an option for students, why not use Science Week to ask them why?

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