All about the numbers

The Irish Times‘ report on the high rate of drop-outs in computing courses throws a harsh light how well students are being prepared for taking up technology subjects at third level. The short and alarming answer is ‘not well at all’.

Figures obtained by the Times under Freedom of Information showed drop-out rates of 15% in computing courses in universities and 29% at institutes of technology. This at a time when recruiters are expecting a bumper year for wage increases in the ICT sector. What gives?

Drilling into the percentages reveals even more disconcerting results. Limerick IT’s Internet systems development course had a 100% drop-out rate; IT Tralee’s computing with games development course had an 80% drop-out rate; Digital Media Design at Letterkenny IT lost 70% of its first year students. Electronic engineering at IT Tallaght, architectural technology at DIT, computing with media development at IT Tralee, physics with energy and environment at DIT all lost half their intake – and that’s just a smattering of the underachievers.

At the other end of the scale, computing courses at the National College of Ireland and Maynooth University, business technology at Limerick IT and computing at IT Tallaght maintained clean sheets. It seems the harder courses – or more expensive in the case of NCI – had higher retention rates, with universities faring better than institutes of technology.

The Times‘ report explores some valid non-academic reasons for these figures. Non-progression can be down to many factors, including moving to a similar course within the same or transferring to another institution, or taking a year out to gain work experience or travel. Still, you can’t put down losing over 20% of the student body to wanderlust. Something else is amiss.

Learning it on the streets
Last week I visited the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in the RDS. Though I only managed to make a quick round of the 97 entrants in the technology category I was astounded by the breadth of projects taking in all the beats of contemporary tech: the Internet of Things, 3D printing, gaming, medtech, drones, augmented reality and even new methods of teaching code. None of these fields currently have a place on the science curriculum at second level but have taken hold in popular culture to the extent that they attract plenty of interest on their own.

This is not all good news, however. Irish Computer Society deputy CEO Mary Cleary says relying on enthusiasm alone is leading to many young people making poor choices in choosing a third level course. Subjects that seem like an organic extension of a hobby can feel too much like hard work when brought in to a sober academic environment with an emphasis on mathematics.

“Young people really are not sure what they’re getting in to,” she says. “It’s not all about social media and designing games.”

Cleary says an example of how digital skills can be applied in the classroom is the ICS’ Formula One in Schools competition where second level students from around the country are exposed to Web design and CAD. The competition challenges teams to design and fabricate model cars which are raced at local and national event. Teams are also graded on their ability to market themselves online and through traditional media.

For Cleary, the end game is for technology to become “a graded and examined subject at junior and senior level” – bringing it in-house so the gap between technology as a passion and technology as a career choice can be bridged.

Adding technology to the curriculum brings with it issues of providing teacher training and proper equipment to meet demand. Furthermore the skills chosen for development must be an adequate preparation for further study. How many times have we heard anecdotes about people embracing a subject at Leaving Cert level only to fall out with it completely in college?

If government is serious about developing STEM in the classroom it must embrace accept that while science subjects and maths (thanks to the reintroduction of bonus points at higher level) are performing well, technology and engineering are being ignored, contributing to unacceptable drop-out rates at third level.

It’s not up to the system to fill courses but it should be responsible for helping students make informed choices on their CAO applications. With forms due for submission on 20 January that doesn’t leave a lot of time for this lesson to sink in.

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