Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe has come under pressure to overhaul the way the subjects are taught following results this week which showed less than one-in-six students took higher-level maths this summer and another drop in the numbers sitting physics.
The University of Limerick is leading a three-year research project to develop new methods for teaching maths and science, from primary to doctorate level.
The National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching & Learning (NCE-MSTL) is a joint project of the Shannon Consortium, with work going on at UL, Limerick Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Tralee and Mary Immaculate College. The centre’s co-director, Dr George McLelland, said the type of changes needed to develop student interest cannot be made overnight and it is very dangerous to have knee-jerk reactions to disappointing exam results.
“We have dozens of projects going on, looking, for example, at the impact of pupils moving from primary to second level and the huge opportunity to show students the relevance of science during transition year when it is not seen in the context of the exam system and the points race,” he said.
“This problem is not unique to Ireland, but one issue internationally is that science has a very poor public image, is poorly portrayed in the media, and there is a poor perception of the career structures,” he said.
Dr McLelland said the low uptake of higher-level maths is a major problem, and part of their work involves how to deliver continuous training for teachers through the internet and other distance learning methods. This would allow much more teacher training and at a much reduced cost.
The centre is also working closely with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on training teachers involved in the Project Maths programme being piloted in 24 second-level schools. The aim is to give students a greater appreciation of mathematical concepts from the start of second level, through greater practical applications of the subject, and the revised curriculum will be introduced from next year.
Mr O’Keeffe said this week that the programme, which aims to double the proportion of students taking higher-level Leaving Certificate maths, will help address the issues.
The first national cohort of schooleavers will be examined in the new curriculum in 2012.
Meanwhile, a number of colleges are offering engineering degree applicants who did not get required Leaving Certificate results in their higher-level maths a second chance at making the grade.
Special maths exams will take place on Wednesday and Thursday at National University of Ireland Galway and NUI Maynooth in Co Kildare, respectively, for students seeking entry. On most honours engineering degrees, students need at least a C3 in higher-level maths but a pass in these exams will also make them eligible, once they also satisfy any other academic requirements.