SciFest: A Teacher’s Perspective

SciFest: A Teacher’s Perspective

SciFest: A Teacher’s Perspective

After four years of teaching Biology at second level, I have recently had the privilege of joining the SciFest team as its Project Manager. Since my appointment, I have been struck by the merits and benefits to co-curricular programmes such as SciFest, in assisting the holistic development of our students. Furthermore, the framework of SciFest, amongst other initiatives supports teachers to do what they do best: Ignite a passion for the STEM subjects. The relationship between SciFest and Science teachers is, of course, a symbiotic one. Without the engagement of teachers, SciFest would cease to exist. Having visited a variety of different schools across the country, my observation is that each is radically different from the other. Something, I believe that should be celebrated. A school's ethos, size, locality, community, and management are variables that may distil entirely different schooling experiences. In my opinion, SciFest’s flexibility is key here. Teachers and our regional partners in the third-level colleges are afforded autonomy in the direction and scale of a SciFest fair. SciFest is there to support. The result is a rich blend of experiences for students throughout the country. Each of the now nearly 100 fairs across the island of Ireland, represents a unique strand in the colourful tapestry that is the SciFest story to date. A story that affirms the passion, industry, and drive of our teachers, the creativity and imagination of our students and the inspiration that the programme ignites in youths and adults alike.

SciFest is Ireland's largest second-level STEM Fair programme. The operative word, for me being programme. The competition exists at four distinct levels; Local (SciFest@School), Regional (SciFest@College), the National Final, and International, comprising now of the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, Broadcom MASTERS Programme and the Berlin Long Night of Science. SciFest is not one event but many, spread across the year, throughout our island and indeed, beyond our shores. From the teacher's perspective, this offers a framework for students to develop their ideas over the year and to showcase them not just at one event, but at least two. SciFest is free to host and to participate in. Every student's project is accepted if at all possible. There is no barrier to participation. Whilst failure and rejection are a part of life, not being even given the chance to try was simply inadequate to our founder, Sheila Porter, when she established SciFest in 2008.

Science is a cycle of transition. As our understanding grows, the facts of yesterday are supplanted by the facts of today. Who knows what tomorrow brings? And that is a core concept that transcends all STEM subjects. More so than any other subject, the Science classroom can be the front line of discovery for students. Science is dynamic and fluid. Evolution doesn't halt. Life evolves and adapts and so must we all. Our Science education system is in transition. The reform of the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement is coming to fruition in this academic year. We have moved past the maiden voyage of the Extended Experimental Investigation (EEI) and are now moving through the second classroom-based assessment, the Science in Society Investigation (SSI). Long before the JCPA, SciFest was encouraging inquiry-based learning in the classroom. Indeed, hosting a SciFest at school in advance of the EEI can help develop and refine the skills required by second years completing the CBA in May every year. Like every good lesson, ideas need time to grow and concepts need to be staged gradually. Hosting a SciFest fair for 1st years, plants the seed of what is meant by ‘in line with expectations', that will hopefully grow and blossom to ‘above expectations' or even ‘exceptional' in the following years.

However, the discourse around STEM education has perhaps been dominated by the Junior Cycle over the past two years. SciFest has huge relevance beyond the Junior Cycle and indeed it is ideal for enhancing any TY programme. As of 2017, SciFest is a Gaisce partner. Students may participate in a SciFest@School fair and use this as the ‘Personal Skill' element of their Gaisce Award. Furthermore, TYs may assist a teacher in running a SciFest@School and use this experience towards meeting their community involvement-element of the Gaisce Award.

The Leaving Certificate is frequently in the crosshairs for encouraging rote learning, thus being deficient in the promotion of critical thinking. Undoubtedly, the Leaving Cert needs reform, to address the skills gap that is growing. A recent report by Dell Technologies predicts that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist today. Many current 1st years students in our second-level schools will be graduating from a four-year primary degree at third level in 2028. We are teaching this generation now. We owe it to our students to push them not just within the confined structures of state examinations, but also in additional opportunities beyond the classroom. SciFest offers a platform for all students to embrace the ‘softer skills' of creativity, innovation, leadership and collaboration so that students may be prepared for all eventualities in their future employment. Future employers will look less into the individual candidate’s exam results as validation and look more into the evidence of an individual candidate being adaptable and well-rounded. We need to offer our students as many chances to develop beyond the classroom as possible.

In conclusion, curriculum reform is a necessity. However, there is only so much it may accomplish before its partial obsolescence. In addition, teachers are stretched and can only do so much. That is why in the STEM Policy Statement 2017-2026, former Minister of Education Richard Bruton outlined that STEM education is part of an extended ecosystem, including Primary and Post-Primary, families, business in the community and out of school programmes. It is time for society, to take a greater claim in addressing the skills gap that has grown. It is vital that programmes such as SciFest, in tandem with industry, offer support to teachers, schools and students. SciFest is grateful to be supported by Science Foundation Ireland, Boston Scientific, Intel and Specsavers amongst many others. This is further evidence that industry is awakening to the idea of good corporate citizenship and is understanding its responsibility in being a role model in the education system. Corporations want to help more than ever. SciFest therefore offers a platform for continuous education reform by joining together all aforementioned stakeholders. To that end, we are all simply functioning cogs in the machinery of STEM education, that drives the change forward and allows that cycle of transition to continue.

Hugo Rowsome taught biology at Blackrock College, Blackrock Co. Dublin for a number of years and recently joined the SciFest team as a project manager.

28 2021
SciFest@School in St. Andrew's College (Fair 2), Booterstown Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin
05 2021
SciFest@School in Sandymount Park Educate Together Secondary School, Simmonscourt Rd, Dublin 4
Michael D. Higgins, Patron of SciFest
SciFest is a registered charity.

RCN 20081270

Michael D. Higgins
© 2021 SciFest