Bridging the Skills Gap

​”In 2009, 8,420 students sat higher-level mathematics; in 2010, it dropped to 8,390 and then last year further to 8,237. In 2010, 4,877 sat higher-level physics; last year it dropped to 4,782. In 2010, 6,298 sat higher-level chemistry; last year it dropped to 6,272. While the numbers sitting the Leaving Certificate in the last two years are almost the same, it really is worrying that there has not been a very strong surge in those wishing to lay a foundation for a scientific or engineering career. The technology sector is buoyant in the economy, exports are very strong, there is an acknowledged skills shortage, employment is immediately available for the right skills, and yet there has not yet been any significant increase in secondary school activity and interest. It really is astonishing and disturbing.” Chris Horn, “The tech sector is buoyant, exports are strong, there are open job positions — where are people to fill them?”   January 28th 2012

Much has been said recently about the skills deficit amongst school leavers and graduates in relation to the needs of the burgeoning technology sector in Ireland. In response we’ve had a number of government and agency initiatives. This week saw the launch of the “Joint Government – Industry ICT Action Plan: Meeting the High Level ICT Skills Needs of Enterprise in Ireland”. This initiative sees 750 new places made available on graduate skills conversion programmes, fast track 12 week courses which aim to help graduates transition into vacant IT positions.  As the country tries to tackle the unemployment problem constructive schemes such as this are welcome but they should not be seen as a replacement for a overarching strategic approach to the whole issue of our national skills deficit.  

The recent Forfás report on the Games Sector in Ireland is a helpful reference in this debate as it takes a global view of how industry and education can work together to bridge the skills gap. The report included two particularly interesting action points for Discover Science & Engineering and T4 Technology Subjects Supports Services respectively –

(1) Promote Awareness at Primary and Secondary School:

“Develop and implement a series of initiatives at primary and secondary level that can take advantage of the ‘cool’ characteristics of the games sector that would stimulate greater interest in the STEM subjects given their direct relevance to the games and digital content sectors, and that would promote a greater understanding of the sector as a professional, highly skilled sector”. ~ Page 51, Section 2.9

(2) Game Based Learning:

“Consider the introduction of game-based learning to the primary and secondary school curriculum to develop team work and problem solving abilities, and at the same time create a test bed within the Irish education system for innovative ‘serious games’ developers and elearning companies based in Ireland”. ~ Page 51, Section 2.10 

For a variety of complex reasons Ireland is failing to produce a digitally literate workforce with high levels of numeracy and literacy, key skills which attract much needed inward investment. This matters. A lot. Chris Horn in his blog post mentions the absence of a response to this crisis at second level but we need to attack this issue at every level of the education system if we are to find a sustainable solution. Every coach understands that when you’re building up a team, you need to make sure that you have new talent coming through the ranks and that the rookies are supported at every level. We need a plan involving all of the stakeholders at all levels from pre-school right through to third level and including industry if we are to give our children the skills they will need to compete on the increasingly competitive global skills market. 

One of the main problems appears to be that we have a system that fails to provide an adequate skills bridge between the education milestones, particularly when it comes to STEM.  For Maths in particular we need to ignite children’s love of learning very early on and ensure that this fire is fed as they negotiate the school system and make those leaps between the education levels. According to the Report of Taskforce of Education of Mathematics and Science at Second Level (Feb. 2010):

“Engineers Ireland are concerned at the extent to which ‘rote learning’ is a teaching mechanism at Second Level for mathematical subjects rather than ‘learning by understanding’.”

The introduction of Project Maths​ is a step forward in putting the emphasis on understanding rather than rote at second level. 

We are borne with an innate need to learn and understand the world around us, to test ourselves and our abilities against our environment. Learning new things is fun. Go into any pre-school and you will see a huge level of engagement and creativity; however it seems that as a child progresses through the education system there is a greater risk of underachievement as engagement drops. We need to ensure that our children are fully engaged with their own learning and that what we teach has relevancy, as James Paul Gee, (Professor at Arizona State University and Author of “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy”) describes as “contextualised learning”. Maths in particular has so much more impact when the learning outcome is relevant, as in Applied Maths. And yet Applied Maths in particular is failing to attract students. In 2009 only 2.5% of Leaving Certificate students sat the Applied Maths exam. “This is despite the fact that some 25%-35% of students achieve an A grade at Higher Level Applied Mathematics making it one of the easier subjects in which students can achieve high grades”. Report of Taskforce of Education of Mathematics and Science at Second Level (Feb. 2010) 

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Figure from the Report of Taskforce of Education of Mathematics and Science at Second Level. Engineers Ireland ~ Page 25

One great example of contextualised learning for Maths which I came across this week was from Steve Holmes, a Senior Software Engineer at Avaya, who in his free time teaches Scratch evening classes to primary school children at Gort VEC. Steve uses Scratch​ to introduce his students to complex maths concepts but by making the learning relevant to a particular Scratch problem, learning happens almost by stealth. One looks at these children and those attending the growing Coder Dojo movement and the recent First Lego League Finals and the question is “what skills deficit”?   

clip_image004I’m one of the founders of MissionV Education, a not for profit organisation whose virtual worlds primary schools project that has been extended to 20 national schools across the country with the support of the NCTE.  In November 2011, after a few shorts weeks using MissionV, we asked participating schools to take part in a virtual Science Week Event. Nothing could have prepared us for the level of creativity demonstrated in the resulting virtual simulations of everything from the Water Cycle, to DNA, to the Digestive and Circulatory systems​. Padraig O’Beirne, Principal of Gortskehy National School in Co. Mayo, talks to the children in this video​ about their learning experiences and how they used MissionV and a suite of digital applications to produce their virtual tour of Atoms & Molecules.  

Both Steve and Padraig are just two of many inspiring teachers (there are many, many more) that we have met through MissionV who’s primary goal is that their students get the education they deserve and the skills that they will need to carve a future in the smart economy. (Catch up with #edchatie, the twitter discussion group, every Monday evening to connect with a similar group of talented and questioning education innovators.)

Bridging the skills gap isn’t easy in an education system that has been left underfunded but it’s something we can no longer afford to ignore. Individual teachers and schools are showing the way, despite budget cuts. They and their students deserve the support of the department and industry in their endeavours. And quite frankly we all need them to succeed. 

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