Maria Sheehan looks at the current key issues in chemistry education in Ireland

At present the entire Irish education system is in a state of change. While on one hand this is incredibly exciting, on the other, teachers are justifiably overwhelmed. 

The context


Maria at CERN

In Ireland, second level (post-primary) education comprises two cycles: junior cycle (two years), which ends with the first of two state examinations, the Junior Certificate at age 15/16; and senior cycle (two years), which culminates with the Leaving Certificate examination at age 17/18. The results of this exam determine if students are accepted onto their preferred course of study at third level. (The Leaving Certificate for students has become a very important exam!). There is also an optional transition year between junior and senior cycles, taken by over 50% of students.

Chemistry is studied as part of a combined science subject along with biology and physics for junior cycle. At senior cycle students can specialise in any one, or a combination of science subjects: biology, chemistry, physics, agricultural science or a combined physics and chemistry subject.

The good

Science subjects at present are popular among Irish second level students. While science is not compulsory at junior cycle, a high proportion of students, just above 90%, opt to study it. The popularity of science subjects at senior cycle is also increasing with over 60% of students opting to study biology, 16% chemistry and 12.5% physics. It is of interest to science teachers that over 95% of students take mathematics up to the end of senior cycle, and now over 90% of students stay on beyond the compulsory school age of 16 to complete the senior cycle. 

Recently there has been increased engagement in chemistry education research (CER) in Ireland, with many third level institutions involved in European and internationally funded projects: ESTABLISH (Dublin City University), PROFILES (University College Cork), Chemistry is all around us (Limerick Institute of Technology), Chain Reaction (University of Limerick) and TEMI (University of Limerick) to name but a few. These projects require involvement from practicing teachers and while dissemination of ideas is slow, practicing teachers are now being afforded the opportunity to keep abreast with new developments in chemistry education, helping to bridge the gap between research and practice. 

The provision of chemistry-related CPD is growing. Agencies, including the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA), the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), and higher education institutions, offer up-skilling in a variety of areas in chemistry education. The recent distribution of Education in Chemistry to Irish schools is very much welcomed. It provides an additional portal for Irish chemistry teachers to engage with innovative teaching ideas and allows them to share experiences of best practice. The Mole student magazine, along with Learn Chemistry, offer many opportunities to stimulate engagement, while providing ideas for inquiry and context based chemistry activities for transition year and senior cycle students. 

The not so good

The Leaving Certificate examination has become very important and, as a result, teaching and learning are invariably being driven by assessment. Rote learning for exam preparation is prevalent in all subjects, not just chemistry. The competitive nature of our points system means that students possibly miss out on experiencing chemistry, so often do not acquire adequate skills and understanding necessary to study the subject further. Another major weakness in assessment is the failure to accredit practical work. Currently this is based on a set of mandatory experiments, and only monitored by irregular school visits to inspect laboratory notebooks. The new draft chemistry syllabus (awaiting approval in 2014) allocates 30% of the final grade to practical work. While this is very welcome, teachers are justifiably worried as no satisfactory model for this type of assessment has yet been adequately piloted or evaluated.

Provision of laboratory technicians was a major recommendation of the Task Force on the Physical Sciences in 2002. In 2014 only a handful of Irish schools have any form of technical assistance. The essence of any science subject lies in its practicality and the lack of technical support undermines the practical elements of our subject. With no provision for technical assistance in Irish school laboratories, science teachers currently hold two positions: teacher and laboratory technician. Teachers are expected to run laboratory sessions, prepare equipment and chemicals, carry out repairs, stock and maintain laboratory supplies on top of a full teaching timetable. 

The murky

At junior cycle, there is a proposed move from a content-based curriculum to one which focuses on the development of a set of key skills, which include managing information and thinking, communicating, and being creative.

Most teachers would see this as a positive move. However, vagueness relating to how the new junior cycle will be assessed has overshadowed the potential it has to offer. 

Worryingly, science has not been considered a core subject in the new junior cycle framework. This omission could be described as irresponsible, bearing in mind that the current government, third level institutions and employers such as those in the pharma-chemical, IT and technology sectors are advocating the importance of STEM to the economic future of our country. Concerns relating to the reduction in the time allocated to science (from 240 to 200 hours) are also being expressed. Reducing contact time means reducing content, which in turn will leave students ill-prepared for senior cycle chemistry. This mismatch between junior and senior cycles could well manifest itself in a number of years time, when students will vote with their feet and as a result we could find that participation in chemistry is once again on the decline.

While we need to embrace change, we also need to make sure we have our say on what that change is

We find ourselves in a very interesting position as professionals. While we need to embrace change, we also need to make sure we have our say on what that change is. In the coming months there will be an opportunity for everybody to be involved in deciding the final specifications for junior cycle science. It is important for teachers to engage fully with this consultation process.

Maria Sheehan is a chemistry teacher at St Caimin’s Community School in Shannon, Ireland. She is currently seconded to the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) as a science advisor