Atlantic Conference 2011 Reviewed

Yesterday saw a strong gathering of representatives of science, science education and engineering from across Ireland, the UK and the US at the Atlantic Conference 2011 in Tullamore. The conference promised a lively discussion on how educators could inspire students to engage with science, technology, engineering and maths and it certainly lived up to its promise. The  conference was in fact two conferences. On one side of a partition a series of talks, presentations and panel discussions took place between science and maths teachers, science communicators, policy makers and national organisations in engineering and science as well as science "celebrities", and on the other side were a selection of Transition Year students from the Midlands discussing how social media could aid science education. In the afternoon the partition was removed and the conference was united for the final panel discussion.

Highlights of the day included an inspiring talk from Sarah Baird, the Arizona Teacher of the Year 2009, on how to engage young people in maths education. The team from Maths Buskers entertained and informed, while everyone was enthralled by the dedicated and clearly genius Thad Starner. Thad has been wearing a customised computer since 1993, using it as a daily aid. The wonderful Ben Goldacre got everyone sitting up during his talk on hack science, with the whole audience clinging to each word.

The two panel discussions were lively and focused, although there was only time for questions during the second which looked at how important science education was in today's world. The general consensus was that science is both necessary for future economic growth yet also a fun interesting subject. There was some debate on how science can be made more appealing to young people and the point was made that more frequent and focused curricular reform is required (the last LC science curriculum to be reformed was Biology in 2001, while Chemistry and Physics were revised in 1999 and Agricultural Science was revised last in the 1960's). The representative of the Irish Science Teachers' Association made the very valid point that the greatest barrier to science education is the assessment system, which currently rewards regurgitation and not thinking.

To end the day, the Transition Year students presented their ideas on social media as a tool to help science education and took questions from the audience. Everyone was extremely impressed by their confident presentations and the competent way in which they managed some tricky questions. Overall, the conference was highly enjoyable and it hopefully left policy makers with some food for thought in relation to the way forward in science education. Disappointingly however, there were no representatives of the Department of Education & Skills at the conference.

The conference was enlivened by frequent Twitter updates which were communicated to the delegates. Click here to see the tweets from #AC2011.


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