Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

National Science Quiz takes place on Thursday


The 2015 National Science Quiz final took place in TCD, and here are some of those that were in attendance. (Credit: ISTA)

On Thursday, leaving certificate students from all over Ireland will take a break from their studies to take part in a National Science Quiz, starting at 7:30pm in 13 venues nationwide.

The top scoring teams will be invited to Trinity College for the Final. This year that will be Saturday 26th November the National Finals will take place in Trinity in the Edmund Burke theatre with
Dr. Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain as guest quizmaster. The National Final is sponsored by BioPharmaChemical Ireland.
This quiz was started by the Dublin Branch of Irish Science Teachers Association in 1990, and is  co-ordinated by Mary Mullaghy.
 Application Forms and all the required info available at

Sexist toys putting girls off science; 9am school start too early for teenagers; 30,000 old virus brought back to life; mental health ‘apps’ review

Click above to listen to discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan.

This was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 10th September 2015

Sexist Toys

Are sexist toys turning girls off science? Many scientists believe they are (Source: Independent, UK)

A quick visit to a toy store confirms that many toys are heavily marketed towards either boys or girls, not both.

Sexist toys, critics say,  encourage nurturing and a pretty appearance, while boys focus on building things, and competing with other boys.

This is sending an early message to girls that activities which involve building, creating and problem solving are not meant for them.

This, according to  Professor Dame Athena Donald, the new President of the British Science Association, explains why girls are often turned off by science, and particularly hard science subjects like physics.

Sleep research is finding that teenagers starting school at 9am are sleep deprived, and suggest 10am as a time more in keeping with youngster’s natural body clocks.

Scientists have brought a 30,000 year old virus back to life. It was frozen in Siberian ice, melted due to global warming. There is a concern that the virus may be dangerous to humans, and safety testing is underway.

Up to 60% of people that have a mental health problem do not access health professionals, for a variety of reasons. Mental health ‘apps’ – against this background – are proving popular with many first time therapy users.

Science Spinnning short-listed for Blog Awards Ireland 2015

Shortlisted-Buttons-300x250Delighted to hear that Science Spinning has been short-listed for for Blog Awards Ireland 2015 under the Education and Science category.

The competition was stiff to get onto the long list, so I’m very happy to reach the short list.

The winner will be selected by public votes, so, if you like Science Spinning, you could say so, by voting for it when the voting opens.

The shortlist is opened to a public vote on 7th September.

I’ll be looking for your number one!



Friday Fun Fact: The world’s first person known to be killed by a car was Irish

The Splice of Life

So this weeks fun fact comes from Sean Dukes book, How Irish Scientists Changed the World.

Mary Ward was the world’s first person known to be killed by a car

Mary Ward was an Anglo-Irish scientist during the 1800’s and she was one of only three women on the mailing list for the Royal Astronomical Society. However, despite her work in astronomy and microscopy, she is best known was the world first person to be killed by a car.

Mary Ward, Irish scientist and first person to be killed by a car Mary Ward, Irish scientist and first person to be killed by a car

In late August 1869, Mary Ward, her husband Henry Ward, 5th Viscount Bangor were visiting her cousin William Paerson, the 3rd Earl of Rosse in present day Birr, County Offaly. William Parsons sons, Richard Clare Parsons (whom was 18 at the time), Charles Algernon Parson (whom was 15) had built a steam powered car which they would…

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Was Sir Tim Hunt treated fairly? Are humans ‘walking dead’? Should we fear facial recognition technology? Why men are better at maths

Tim Hunt

Sir Tim Hunt was forced to resign from several prestigious positions following allegedly ‘sexist’ remarks (Credit:

The allegedly ‘sexist’ remarks made by Sr Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winner, led to his resignation from several posts within days and his career is in shreds.

But were the remarks genuinely sexist? Was he treated fairly by the press?

Species of plants and animals are disappearing faster than any time since the dinosaurs. Legendary scientist and advocate Paul Ehrlich believes we have three generations left to do something about it, or we’ll end up like other ‘walking dead’, doomed species.

Facial recognition software is improving all the time, and governments and private companies are very interested in the data it provides. What’s now possible and how worried should be?

In education there is a well-known theory called the self-fulfilling prophecy. This is where a student meets the expectations of teachers and parents.

Does this explain the apparently strange reality where men are better at maths than women, while girls do better than boys in maths in primary school?

Click below to hear a discussion of these topics on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

This was first broadcast on 25th June 2015 on East Coast FM

Time to ’embed’ communication into scientific training

Aalborg University

Aalborg University in Denmark has ’embedded’ communication skills into its undergraduate science and engineering programmes [Credit: Wikipedia]

There is wide acceptance in Ireland and everywhere that ‘communication’ skills are a crucial pre-requisite for a scientist to have a successful career.

For example, a recent survey conducted on academics across three universities in Ireland – DCU, NUIM and RCSI – found 78.7 per cent ‘agreed strongly’ that communication skills are an essential part of scientific training at 3rd level.

However, despite this finding, when it comes to the implementation of science communication initiatives here it’s s a case of too little, far too late.

There used to be no communication training for scientists whatsoever. These days things have improved, slightly. There are now a small number of taught modules for PhD candidates within the structured PhD programme.

The problem

I have taught some of these PhD modules, so I declare that interest. However, the experience has left me strongly believing that PhD stage is far too late. For real change to happen, it has to be implemented far earlier, and in a more radical way.

Many of the PhD students I have come across are often too focused on their research, and its minute details, to care about communication and there is little encouragement from their supervisors.

The way science is structured means that supervisors want the PhD candidates working tirelessly in the lab, and anything that is a distraction from that is resisted – actively or passively.

Science communication fits that category.

At undergraduate level in Ireland, in science and engineering, there is no science communication training at all, yet this is where it needs to begin.

The communication problem we have in science begins on the first day the science or engineering undergrad sits down and listens to their first lecture.

The undergrad begins to build new knowledge and this includes learning the language of science, or more precisely, the languages of science.

As they learn the languages of science, they delve ever deeper into the subject matter, and they move further away from what is – plain English.

By the time, students have completed a four year degree they are routinely using words and terms that are opaque to the average person.

It is seen as something of a scientific badge of honour to be able to understand the ‘jargon’ of Geology, or Biology, or subsets upon subsets of such areas.

The big picture is lost; the ability to see where a research area came from historically, where it fits in with the modern world, and where it’s going.

The drive is for new knowledge, more detailed, more precise, often more remote from the ‘man in the street’ and to publish such new knowledge.

To try and train PhD candidates to communicate science to a general audience, thus, goes against everything they have been taught up to then.

Teaching science communication to PhDs is akin to a struggle to get them to ‘unlearn’ how they communicate science, and to start again, with a completely new perspective. Difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Far better to start earlier.


The real driving force for change here in Ireland is the funding agencies, such as Science Foundation Ireland, who demand that outreach be done.

In return for receiving funding from the Irish taxpayer the scientist today MUST describe his research in terms everyone that pays tax in Ireland can understand. Fair is fair – after all the taxpayer is footing the bill.

However, this relatively new (since around 2000) landscape in Ireland is uncomfortable for many scientists, as simply they don’t like to communicate, and if they do, they believe their work is devalued.

Scientists often complain that science journalists ‘dumb down’ research to make it understandable to the public or try to ‘sensationalise it’.

These are often the same scientists that can’t be bothered to try explain their work in a way that can make it accessible to a wide audience.

The problem for these ‘old school’ scientists in Ireland and elsewhere is that government funding bodies continue to insist that they explain and talk to the public. No communication = no further funding. End of.


So, for lots of reasons, scientists need to be better able to communicate their science to a wider public, the question is how best to do that?

Given that – as I wrote earlier – the problem begins on the first day of university, then the solution has to start also on that very first day.

The whole system has to change. That is probably why nothing has really happened up to now. The solution demands a radical change at 3rd level.

Science communication cannot be done as an afterthought at post graduate level. No. The way we teach science must change. Science communication must be embedded in curriculum. It must be part of the way subjects are taught.

The ability to explain science, and to understand where it fits in to the broader picture, must be a central part of the actual teaching and learning of science itself. It might sound like common sense, but in science, this will be seen as revolutionary talk in some quarters.

So, for example, the learning of the principles of Genetics must go hand in hand with an ability to explain the science to a group of non-scientists.

This means students must truly understand the science, before they move on to the next level, and how better to test that than to get them to describe.

These communication skills can be part and part of group work, and group work is also an essential part of how science is done.

In short, the scientific leadership in Ireland must stop seeing communication as separate from science. It must become part of scientific training from day one.

Undergraduates must be encouraged to think, how would I communicate this concept to other people? This can be done in many imaginative ways. Let’s talk about it.

It’s time now to embed communication into the training of scientists. There are working models out there if we care to look – in places like Aalborg University in Denmark. It’s time for action.

Ireland should follow the Danish model of science communication

Aalborg University

Aalborg University in Denmark, pictured here, was set up in 1974 with the remit of embedded communication in undegraduate science programmes [Picture credit; Wikipedia]

More than 90 per cent of people believe – if the straw poll conducted on this site recently is accurate – that communication is essential for a scientist to be successful in his career.  This result fits all the anecdotal evidence that is available.

This is quite something. It means that most  people believe that no matter how good a scientist is in the lab, they will not have e successful career if they can’t effectively communicate the value of their research to their peers and non scientists alike.

Being a top scientist in the lab is not, it seems, enough.  Over the 20 years I have spent working as science journalist, I have found that – almost without exception –  the top scientists are also superb communicators.

The leading scientists today, those typically aged in their 40s, 50s and 60s, have managed to become brilliant communicators without any training whatsoever.

Indeed in the 1980s in my own period as a undergraduate, talking to the press, or lay people about science, was not encouraged at all. It was even frowned upon.

Today there is no argument; everyone agrees; whether it is writing a grant proposal, or pitching for funding, or talking to a group of 15-year-old school students, scientists absolutely need to have very good communication skills.

Against this background, it is remarkable that science communication training in Ireland, and lots of other developed countries too, only happens – if it happens at all – at post-graduate level. This is a case of far too little, and far too late.

Doctoral students, and their research supervisors, often resent being dragged away from the lab,  to do a science communication module, which they see, at that stage of their career – and rightly so – as being less than their number one priority.

The Danish model

So, how do other countries ‘do’ science communication? Could we be doing things better? The answer is, most certainly, yes.

Perhaps the best model around is that of Aalborg University in Denmark. This highly progressive university was set up in 1974 with the specific remit of having communication ’embedded’ into undergraduate science degrees.

Thus, learning about how to communicate science goes hand in hand, from day one, with the actual learning of scientific concepts. How better to test whether learning has happened or not, than to test students’ ability to explain a concept or an idea to others?

Undergraduates thus see communication of science, as part and parcel of the learning of science. The students realise that they will be judged by examiners on their learning of science, as expressed through the quality of how they communicate it.

In short, the students must become good communicators to make it through their degree.  The better they are at communication the higher the grades they will achieve.

This is a totally different, and much more productive approach, than lumping communication modules on post grads. It’s too late at that stage, as post-grads will have already spent four, five or six years in a system that has ignored the need to communicate.

That’s sorted then.

So, all universities in Ireland you have been served notice – It’s time to embed communication skills into all your undergraduate degree science programmes, or face the consequences down the line.

If this is done well, then students, the university, and  Irish society, and the high-tech local economy generally will benefit hugely.



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