A round table with the participation of several organisations has emphasised the need to ignite a lifelong interest in the STEM disciplines amongst children of both sexes from an early age

Despite the numerous initiatives already in place to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), research shows that Irish students are still choosing not to study these areas at third level due to negative perceptions of science and technology. In addition, even though the products manufactured by companies in the life sciences sector are highly innovative and impact millions of people around the world, young students often feel disconnected from this industry and find it difficult to understand the career paths available to them.

Steering these students toward science subjects and, ultimately, science careers will require a roadmap and the recently published STEM Paths report (PDF) provides just that.

The multi-stakeholder report has two functions; as well as providing a snapshot of current efforts to encourage participation in STEM subjects in school, it offers concrete suggestions as to how these efforts could be developed and enhanced in a bid to attract more young people to careers in these fields.

The STEM Paths report derived from an event hosted by AbbVie in partnership with The Irish Times, which aimed to explore how Irish industry, educators, professional bodies and other interested stakeholders could work together with the common goal of ensuring a rich talent pipeline of STEM-educated men and women.

AbbVie ultimately wished to provide a forum for a discussion that could articulate why students and young people can often be disconnected from STEM subjects and their potential for delivering a diverse array of high quality opportunities with Irish-based companies who are global international leaders

“Our aspiration is to help Irish students better see the potential that undoubtedly exists for successful, fulfilling careers utilising STEM disciplines in Ireland, with locally-based companies such as AbbVie. As a research-driven innovative company, we believe it is important for us to be proactive on this matter so we can ensure a talent pipeline is in place for all companies active in STEM areas in Ireland, not least our own.” Ms Caroline McClafferty, HR Director with AbbVie Ireland said at the event.

A global research-based biopharmaceutical company founded in 2013, AbbVie has a significant footprint in Ireland. Employing close to 600 people at five different manufacturing and commercial sites across the country in Cork, Dublin and Sligo, the company’s commitment to research in Ireland is underpinned by several large-scale long-term research projects.

The round table event was chaired by Dick Ahlstrom, former Science Editor, The Irish Times and attendees from across academia, industry and relevant professional bodies, as well as several AbbVie representatives, were present.

Engineers Ireland; BioPharmaChem Ireland and Pharmacists in Industry, Education and Regulatory (PIER) participated, as did representatives from Science Foundation Ireland and the IDA. Dr Helena Kelly, Senior Lecturer in the School of Pharmacy at the RCSI; Professor Anne Marie Healy Head of School, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, TCD; and Dr Patricia Kieran, Associate Professor at the UCD School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering were among those from the education sector who also contributed.

High on the agenda was discussing what employers can do to attract more women to science careers and overcome the gender gap that presently exists. Despite being an issue that garners media attention, the meeting heard this situation is rarely discussed in terms of a practical solution. Worldwide, there are a disproportionately small number of women studying and/or employed within the STEM disciplines and, in Ireland, women make up just a quarter of those employed in STEM roles.

All present agreed that the first step is to ignite a lifelong interest in the STEM disciplines amongst children of both sexes from an early age, and to foster this throughout their time spent in education. There was consensus that students from primary school, all the way through to PhD and post-doc level, need to be made aware of the many attractive and diverse careers available within the pharmaceutical sector and in other STEM areas, such as medical devices, ICT and agri-food.

One success story highlighted was the Smart Futures initiative, a national awareness programme promoting STEM careers in Ireland that is supported across four government policy strategies. It has more than 200 partners in industry and academia including AbbVie, IBM, Twitter and Salesforce, amongst others. The website www.SmartFutures.ie showcases a multitude of STEM career stories, searchable by school subject. Attendees agreed that this could potentially play an even greater role in promoting and showcasing STEM careers, and thus should be even more strongly supported.

One aspect of Smart Futures is direct interaction with students and STEM sector workers – over 5,000 volunteer hours have been spent so far by STEM professionals engaging directly with over 110,000 post primary students through school visits and career events. This type of interaction is invaluable, said Ms Margie McCarthy, Head of Education and Public Engagement at SFI.

“Smart Futures provides a trusted interface for companies and schools with trained volunteers and an easy to use system,” she explained.

The attendees agreed that industry must strive to develop and nurture close relationships with local schools adding that greater exposure to industry could and should be facilitated through transition year programmes, for example. These types of programmes allow industry to directly impact STEM uptake and potentially help in recruiting the next generation of thinkers and leaders.

“Where companies engage, we see a tangible improvement in the take up of science at second level,” Director of BioPharmaChem Ireland, Mr Matt Moran explained. “We see more graduates and we see more jobs. So, it does work. Where the company is prepared to invest money, time, and often pushing uphill, it makes a difference. It is not an easy communication. But if companies are prepared to do this, they will see an impact.”

AbbVie is involved in a number of other initiatives at primary level, including their company SEEK (Science Engineering Exploration Knowledge) initiative. Working with local primary schools, the goal is to spark a child’s interest in science. This global programme was piloted in Ireland and has since been implemented around the world. In Ireland, workshops are held annually at primary schools in Dublin, Cork and Sligo, areas in which AbbVie has a significant local presence.

The round-table group agreed this sort of targeted interaction should continue with third and fourth level students undertaking science and pharmacy degrees. Unless exposure to industry increased significantly to match that in other educational areas, such as in business, consultancy and accountancy for example, a sectoral shortfall in talent would persist.

The critical role of the media in shaping perception of STEM was also highlighted. By working in partnership with the media, attendees believed AbbVie and other companies could potentially highlight young role models, particularly females. These individuals would already have interesting and aspirational roles within STEM and telling their story could create interest in the unique types of careers that STEM can offer.

“We cannot underestimate the importance of trying to get role models out there, aspirational stories of achievements by people and role models who will explain that it is actually cool to work in science, and it is cool to be on a science-related course,” explained Ms McClafferty.

One of the main challenges faced in promoting STEM disciplines is how it is perceived by Irish society, and SFI’s Margie McCarthy argued that the influence of this negative stereotyping cannot be underplayed.

“As parents, we need to be aware that unconsciously we can frame our child’s thoughts about a particular subject and potential career paths from a very early age without meaning to. Our research shows that when it comes to picking out third level courses, young people are overwhelmingly influenced by the idea of ‘fitting in’ and parents can be very influential in that regard from an early age. By simply supporting their children to explore a greater diversity of career options, parents can play an important role in opening a world of opportunities to young people” she said.

According to Dr Patricia Kieran of UCD, there is a need to make STEM subjects, such as physics and chemistry, more accessible and appealing to students, especially from an early age.

“We need to lower the barrier but we shouldn’t be looking to dumb these subjects down. However, we do need to make them seem more relevant and interesting to our younger cohorts, long before they are making their career and Leaving Certificate subject choices.”

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Despite the numerous initiatives already in place to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), research shows that Irish students are still choosing not to study these areas at third level due to negative perceptions of science and technology. In addition, even though the products manufactured by companies in...