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Project maths plan does not add up Friday, March 16, 2012 Sir, – If you look at the papers for project mathematics on the Department of Education website, and this is a very worthwhile exercise, you will notice a huge reduction in areas such as calculus and linear algebra, as well as corresponding significant increases in areas such as applied statistics and geometry in comparison to previous years. I couldn’t see any question on group theory. I see very little on sequences and series, for example. I think the new syllabus should be called practical mathematics! The demonstration of the intrinsic beauty of mathematics, which is often illustrated in techniques required to work out difficult integrals or inherent in what might be considered tricky mathematics (which always appealed to me), is being sacrificed in favour of this more practical approach. I am always in favour of being able to apply mathematics in a practical way where feasible: and there are many students who may prefer this approach and who appreciate the value of the subject more by being exposed to these types of practical examples. However, the inclusion of practical mathematics should not lead to the exclusion of a substantial amount of fundamental theory. Students with high aptitudes for mathematics could find this course intellectually undemanding, inferior and unchallenging. This point was strongly made by recent students’ letters in this newspaper. Excluding the introduction of fundamental concepts in calculus and algebra from the honours Leaving Cert syllabus may not be in the best interest of the better or more theoretically minded students. Perhaps a choice of equally valued mathematics courses should be offered to reflect different types of learners in mathematics. – Yours, etc, Dr CORA STACK, Monday, March 12, 2012 Sir, – I have the misfortune to be one of the fifth year pupils referred to by Kate Mockler (March 5th). I have been introduced, this year, to “project maths”. It is, bluntly, a dumbed down version of the syllabus with two functions. To increase numerical ability (here meaning, to make the exam easier – ridiculously so), and to increase the numbers taking higher level maths, in order to make it appear as though our education system is a success. In class recently we were debating a project maths question where it was necessary to describe how you would measure the height of a pylon surrounded by a fence, armed with a tape measure. The answer was so open-ended that anybody could have been right, yet for those of us who used to consider maths a numerical subject, all these words and “ethical issues” relating to statistics are a tad disconcerting. The Government would do better to focus on standards of teaching and primary and junior cycle curriculums, which are far too simplistic. A Russian pupil attending my school said to me during an algebra lesson: “I studied this when I was eight years old”. Which is the more developed country, you may find yourself asking. – Is mise, PAUL McDONAGH-FORDE, Cairns Road, Sligo. Monday, March 5, 2012 Sir, – The new project maths syllabus introduced for Junior and Leaving Cert has caused controversy among both teachers and students alike. Students who are intelligent and good at maths are finding project maths difficult as it is too “wordy”. I don’t understand why fifth years, who have studied the “old” maths course all their lives, have been landed with this whole new syllabus. Why not start it from first year, and let it work its way up? With hardly any text books or past papers to go by, it must be almost impossible to teach. Instead of learning about different angles in class, teachers are spending full classes taking 20 or so students outside and making them physically measure the angle of the school wall to the ground. It must be a nightmare for them, especially when classes aren’t co-operating. I don’t understand why, in an economic crisis, we are spending so much money on something that has been abandoned in countries including Finland, one of the top 10 countries in Maths League Tables. As a Transition Year student who will be studying the course next year, I truly hope project maths will not put me at a serious disadvantage at third level, when competing with students from UK and Northern Ireland. – Yours, etc, KATE MOCKLER, Carrickmines Avenue, Carrickmines Wood, Foxrock, Dublin 18. Tuesday, January 31, 2012 TEACHER, ST PATRICK’S CLASSICAL SCHOOL, NAVAN. RETIRING AFTER 38 YEARS Why now? The Croke Park Agreement presented an opportunity. Career highlight? The Leaving Cert results every year. I teach maths and it’s great to see students realise their potential. Career low point? When the ASTI threatened to boycott exams in 2001. I was very annoyed – I left the union for 18 months. Overall, however, the union has been a positive force. Most significant change in Irish education during your career? Project maths is a great development. It’s more practical – students can apply it to everyday life. Most significant improvement in resources? Counselling services for students. We have more students from dysfunctional families, more discipline problems, bullying, greater need for psychological support. There’s much more to teaching than teaching now. What’s better today? Education is more child-centred. There’s more active learning. Also, corporal punishment is gone. Students are more assertive and can stand up for their rights. What’s worse today? Teaching is increasingly being quantified in industrial terms. The language used in PISA reports – benchmarking, outputs. The role of the teacher is diminished by this terminology. How has the role of the church changed? When I started at St Pat’s there were five priests teaching in the school. Now there are none. There are very few mass-going students now. I still say a prayer at the start of every class, though. It settles them and it gives me a chance to make reference to people who are ill or need to be in our thoughts. Are you sorry to be leaving the classroom? Yes. I’ve done a good job and have a good rapport with the students. I would have stayed the 40 years, but it’s not to be. There are two other teachers leaving on the same day. Will you return? I will stay on, on the minimum teaching wage, to finish with my exam students. I’d do it for nothing. I’d say a majority of teachers with exam students will do the same. After May, though, I won’t be back. I think it’s unethical to take work from a young graduate. FRANK HOGAN Friday, January 27, 2012 Positions vacant - lacking talent SKILLS SHORTAGE: WITH A LACK of relevant talent forcing indigenous companies and Irish-based multinationals to look to Eastern Europe to fill engineering vacancies, no stakeholders can escape blame for letting such a situation develop. Be it as a result – or in spite – of successive governments’ policies, the theory of jobs growth led by a “smart economy” appears to have had some merit. Despite high unemployment and emigration figures there are hundreds – if not thousands – of vacancies in Irish-based technology companies at any given moment. The problem is that there is not the Irish-based talent to fill them. According to John Power, director general of Engineers Ireland, this is only one of the many legacies left behind by the Celtic Tiger years. “We went through an era where we all lived in a bubble . . . unfortunately students and a lot of other people felt the path to making big money was in the legal side, accounting, as service professionals,” he says. “Students need to understand that paradigm has changed entirely.” According to Power, the boom encouraged talent away from more difficult, maths-focused courses such as engineering and toward easier subjects that still promised instant employment and big financial rewards. It is a view shared by many in the industry. “I suppose we got used to taking the soft options,” says Dr John Hayes, a lecturer in electrical and electronic engineering in UCC. “It was too easy to avoid going down the hard route of the sciences.” Those who did take the engineering route also tended to opt for the civil side as a result of the construction boom, he said. Students – and indeed parents, teachers and schools – simply failed to see where sustainable job growth would be in the years ahead. This shift, in effect, created a negative spiral for universities. As talented students sought degrees in other areas CAO points in engineering began to drop, leading courses to take on weaker students. Starting from lower baselines, some courses were forced to change tack to help students progress. The end result was a student with less ability who had been taught in less-than-ideal circumstances. “If you get people who are barely qualified to do the material it does mean you spend an awful lot more time with remedial issues,” says Dr Adam Winstanley, head of the computer science department at NUI Maynooth. “You have people barely getting through and struggling and then you have more resources used getting people through exams.” This, says Dr Winstanley, is not the way a subject should be taught to students who should ideally have the opportunity to “read around” the material more. Ultimately this led to a decline in the quantity, and in many causes quality, of engineering graduates. “The situation is that the good [students] coming out are very good, it’s just that there are not enough of them,” says John Blake, head of the Microelectronic Industry Design Association (Midas). The finger is consistently pointed at second level – and even primary – education at a way to address this issue. Most in industry and academia argue that students need to be coming to college with a stronger foundation, which will make it easier for them to be brought forward to graduation. Project Maths has generally been greeted as a positive step in this regard, although many are still withholding judgment on its benefits. However, many call for radical reform of education, suggesting the addition of new subjects such as computer science to make it more relevant to future job demand. However, not all of the blame is put squarely on the secondary system – some also suggest a need for reform at third level. When asked about academia’s interaction with industry to improve graduate performance, one senior industry figure says: “They’re slow . . . I wouldn’t say they’re hugely cooperative.” He adds that some universities now preferred to focus on research as opposed to undergraduate training as they can get more funding. “The comments seem to be that we’ve a problem with the undergraduate side so we’ll just let it go but we’ll keep doing research,” he says. As some European research grants are based around the free mobility of researchers in the EU, there can also be a situation where researchers are brought to Ireland rather than home- grown, he says. This importing of talent is not unique to academia, however. According to the chief executive of Cork-based Powervation, his firm’s last three hires came from eastern Europe because there was not the suitable talent available in Ireland. “In some cases the material, the way [universities] teach and the staff themselves haven’t changed in 20 years,” says Mike McAuliffe. “Students need to be exposed to job opportunities and they need to be exposed to enthusiasm.” However, McAuliffe says a lack of talent from third level aside, there are also issues within the industry that make it harder to find talent. He says small companies such as his one can not invest the time and money it takes to bring a graduate up to speed in a working company, something only larger players really have the resources to do. Companies such as his need more experienced talent, he says – but they are generally snapped up by multinationals with deeper pockets. Even with this advantage, however, Google is one company that seems to be struggling to bag local talent. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google, is reported to have complained about this very issue at a meeting with the Cabinet last year, encouraging them to ease visa restrictions so the search giant could bring more staff in. John Power accepts that the industry has its problems and needs to work to make the situation better, not least by encouraging more talent into engineering degrees in the first place. “I would really love if companies opened their doors to students and indeed adults for people to go in and actually see what happens,” he says. “Unfortunately with engineering a lot is taken for granted and it would create an awareness of what they’re doing in these places.” John Blake agrees: “I don’t think [the industry] was putting enough press out there, I don’t think we were telling the story as effectively as we could have.” As engineering has maths and problem solving at its core there was also huge competition between the various engineering disciplines too, he said. John Hayes went one further and said that all types of industries are potential competitors for a good engineering graduate. “A significant amount of our electronic engineer graduates went into oil and gas last year, which is not necessarily an intuitive industry for that kind of expertise,” he said. There are the beginnings of positive signs, however. After years of decline, the CAO points requirements for most engineering courses around the country are recovering as students seek out areas where job prospects are strong. UCC also added an energy engineering course to its prospectus in 2007, showing that demand is there if the focus is right. According to Dr Winstanley, the pace of change in technology means the focus must be on creating smart, adaptable workers. “Things are moving so quickly we don’t really have a clue what the industry will look like in 20-30 years,” he says. “Industry wants educated people, they’re not just interested in us training their new recruits.” Links between industry and universities are also improving, as bodies such as Midas seek to create stronger ties that will ultimately benefit its members. “We’re sitting down with the universities, trying to plan out to see how we can do a better job,” he says. “We’re willing to get involved in the courses and advise them, take students on and offer work experience.” However, it may be a few years before the industry see the benefits of these shifts, co- operations and initiatives. For the moment, there is no clear way of ensuring that thousands of jobs flowing onto the market are not lost to the Irish for good. Friday, January 13, 2012 Students get exercised over maths THE DEPARTMENT of Education may be kicking the wrong ball when it comes to its new maths curriculum Project Maths. It is not meeting its objectives in at least one school, according to an analysis by a student from Hartstown Community School in Dublin. “My research is about changes in the syllabus and in teaching methods related to Project Maths,” said Aisling Lawson (15), a transition-year student. “The standard of maths in Ireland has dropped seriously in recent years.” She wanted to assess if Project Maths was having any impact. She compared maths results from the Junior Cert and from Christmas exams and apparently it provided no sign of improvements. She acknowledged the data could not provide “a definite yes or no”, but of the five positive outcomes expected of Project Maths only one was being delivered. “Project Maths has the right intentions but at the moment in my school it is not working.” Maths was also on the minds of Katie Fleming (12) and Maria Carr (13), two first-year students from Donabate Community College. They wanted to see whether students did better at maths if beforehand they had physical education (PE). They put classmates through light exercise regimes for 10 minutes just before maths class, then measured mathematical performance both with and without the exercise. “We found out it did have a beneficial effect,” Katie said. Students already getting high marks in maths saw a 23 per cent improvement in performance while those in the middle ground showed a 10 per cent gain. Oddly, students underachieving actually saw a decline in maths performance. “That had never been found out before,” Maria said. Teachers were also happier with students doing maths post-exercise. About 40 per cent of teachers in their survey thought student behaviour was improved and 80 per cent said students concentrated better and were more receptive in class. Wednesday, January 11, 2012 DCU to lead €3.75m science initiative DUBLIN CITY University is to head an international research effort to revolutionise the way science is taught in schools. The goal of the €3.75 million four-year project is to increase the numbers of students going forward for science at third level. The Sails (Strategies for Assessment of Inquiry Learning in Science) project involves 13 research partners in 12 countries and is funded by the European Union under Framework Programme 7. As it progresses, the project will provide teacher training workshops and online facilities where teachers can share experiences. It is based on further development of the inquiry-based learning methods already being used in the Junior Cert science curriculum and in Project Maths, said Dr Odilla Finlayson of Dublin City University. She is based in the university’s Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Teaching and Learning and will co-ordinate the Sails project. “The project uses inquiry teaching methods and will add assessment strategies for use by teachers,” she said yesterday at the announcement of the research consortium. Inquiry-based teaching encourages students to develop their own questions when studying a problem to devise an answer. “Inquiry teaching and inquiry learning are now becoming part of the normal practice in schools,” she said. It was meant to encourage critical thinking, problem solving and creativity in students but existing performance assessment methods do not readily measure these, Dr Finlayson said. “The project will develop assessment strategies for measuring those kinds of skills.” The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, which gets under way this morning, was a good example of inquiry-based learning, she said. Students are asked to identify a problem and then devise ways of solving it. The project will focus in particular on teaching science using these advanced methods. “We will be working with teachers in developing these skills and assessing these skills,” Dr Finlayson said. Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn attended the Sails launch. He congratulated DCU on securing funding from the commission and on heading up the project, saying it was great that Irish researchers were leading an international consortium of this size. The project would help reinforce the gains being made by the Project Maths curriculum, he said. Intel Ireland will be a partner in the project and will develop online tools and supports for teachers and students. Enhancing student learning of maths and science subjects was “crucial” for the development of Europe’s knowledge economy, said DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith. “Sails advocates and supports a curriculum that encourages problem-solving and exploratory learning,” he added.
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