Thursday, 18 August 2011

Maths Teaching Again in Focus after Leaving Cert Results

This year's Leaving Certificate Results were released yesterday, and again we heard in the media about a 'further drop in maths and science grades' and urgent calls for reform from IBEC and the American Chamber of Commerce. On closer examination though it was a mixed bag - a higher % than ever achieved grades A, B and C yet the proportion of Leaving Cert students taking Honours Maths remains at a stubborn 16 - 17% - no improvement on previous years.

Students are still deserting the Honours Maths paper at Leaving Cert in favour of chasing Honours in other 'easier more engaging' subjects. This is of major concern to Engineers Ireland because a minimum Grade C in Honours Maths is a requirement for all university entry to Level 8 Bachelor of Engineering courses. Such was our concern two years ago that we commissioned a Task Force Report on the Education of Maths and Science at Second Level which I chaired as Vice President (see 2010 photo)

The launch of the Engineers Ireland Task Force Report on the Education of Maths and Science at Second Level during Engineers Week Feb 2010 Aoibheann Ni Shuilleabhain Maths and Science Teacher, Dr Chris Horn then President of Engineers Ireland, Sarah Green Maths and Science Teacher, Eamon Prendergast Research Engineer Engineers Ireland and P J Rudden then Vice President of Engineers Ireland and Task Force Chairman

We should not be surprised at the low % taking Honours Maths at Leaving Cert when only 40% of students take Honours Maths at Junior Certificate level. Overall there appears to be a lack of passion and enjoyment to the learning of Mathematics in its current form and indeed also to Physics and Chemistry but not so Biology which some 40% of Leaving Certificate students take. The numbers taking Applied Mathematics are also disappointing for such an interesting foundation subject towards engineering courses.

Of course the newly introduced Project Maths approach and 'bonus points' at Leaving Cert will help. However, the Task Force Report identified that the basic problem is the quality of teaching and degree of 'rote learning' especially at Junior Cycle. The 24 pilot schools for the new Project Maths syllabus this year don't appear to have performed any better than those of previous years. Yet it will take some 5 to 10 years for the new Project Maths approach of 'learning through understanding' rather than 'learning through rote' to embed fully at Second Level. So it’s too early to judge Project Maths which we have to support as 'the only show in town'.

One of the Task Force recommendations was to assist students and employers in the 'learning outcomes' through improved CPD training of teachers and greater assistance and encouragement to students. That's why Engineers Ireland have been running free Maths Grinds in LC Honours Maths in Clyde Road every Saturday during school year for the past 18 months and extending this to Junior Certificate in the coming school year. These grinds by fantastic Volunteer Engineer Tim Joyce are greatly appreciated. Yesterday at midday an hour after the results were announced one of the students who signed up for our grinds last year put this message on our Facebook page 'I'd just like to say many thanks for the free Leaving Cert Maths grinds, they were a huge help and contributed a lot to my grade!'. Great praise indeed to Engineers Ireland and to our Director General who indeed was on radio and TV yesterday articulating our concerns at the current national deficiency in Mathematics as a subject.

So for us at Engineers Ireland we are assisting where we possibly can from our own scarce resources but the entire Second Level school system needs radical reform to make learning outcomes more relevant to the needs of industry and the modern world. I'm glad that such an overhaul is currently now planned at Junior Cycle by Ministers Quinn and Sherlock and hopefully then Senior Level together with a more 'jointed up' transition from Primary to Second Level. We intend staying with these reforms and being part of the transformation of the Irish education system as its too important to the growth of our profession and to the recovery of the Irish economy.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Biomedical engineering gives life

As a civil engineer I continue to marvel at the advances in biomedical engineering and much of it happening here in Ireland. This blog is not about an event I attended but a good news story recently from Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH)

A robotic system has helped deliver a baby girl at CUMH. The da Vinci surgical system aided mum Anne O'Mahony deliver her new baby girl, Lucy, born on Friday July 22nd last. Anne was one of the first women in Europe to have been assisted in a successful pregnancy as a result of a procedure carried out last year by robotic surgery using the da Vinci surgical system at CUMH.

We all know that Leonardo da Vinci (born Italy 1452), as shown in the image below, was recognised as one of Europe's great engineers in addition to being a renowned painter sculptor and mathematician. He was also a famed inventor of various types of early machine and was a noted student of anatomy and the science of the human body which makes naming the 'da Vinci robot' very apt.

Credit: Free photos from

To see a photo of the new arrival and her parents click here

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Mizen Head Bridge Reopened

On Friday last I travelled to the most southern point in Ireland, to the Official Opening of the Mizen Head Bridge in West Cork by Minister for Transport Sport and Tourism Leo Varadkar TD.  The project was jointly funded by Failte Ireland, Cork County Council and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

I had been in West Cork before but never south of Schull to Mizen Head, the home of the famous lighthouse and all kinds of electronic navigational aids. It’s a fascinating drive beyond Schull to Goleen, Crosshaven then on past what was a crowded golden beach at Barley Cove and onto Mizen Head Visitor Centre.

Mizen Head Bridge

I was happy to accept the very kind invitation of Cork County Council to attend the official opening of the Mizen Head Bridge. I was greeted by the County Mayor Councillor Tim Lombard, County Manager Martin Riordan and County Engineer Noel O'Keeffe. Noel had given an excellent interview on the engineering of the bridge on Morning Ireland earlier in the day in language that the public could readily understand. Also present to welcome the Minister was Murt Coleman MD of Carillion Irishenco the contractor who built the new bridge. Murt is Finance Committee Chairman at Engineers Ireland. Present also was Brendan Brice Acting Chairman of the Cork Region of Engineers Ireland standing in for Jim Robinson who was on leave.

P J Rudden President of Engineers Ireland greeting Leo Varadkar TD Minister for Transport and Tourism together with Noel O'Keeffe Cork County Engineer

Also highly involved in the project itself were Fiona Buckley Operations Manager of the Cork/Kerry Region of Failte Ireland, Eoghan Lehane Civil Engineering and Property Manager of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and Sue Hill Development Officer of Mizen Tourism Cooperative.

One of the reasons why I was delighted to visit the project is my stated intention of visiting Regional Infrastructural Projects and Research Institutes during my year as President. These visits are intended to assist in highlighting our principal theme of Job Creation and the importance of Regional Infrastructure towards Job Creation and Balanced Regional and Economic Recovery.

I now find as I did in Mizen that these visits by Engineers Ireland are highly welcomed by the development agencies as appreciative of their efforts and I have received many messages of support from members of our own Council, Executive and members generally. In terms of Infrastructure the trip to Mizen was the first national visit to Infrastructural Projects. On September 7th I hope to visit the NUIG Institutes and the Marine Institute in Galway together with Director General John Power.

Pictured at the bridge opening were Brendan Brice Acting Chairman Cork Region Engineers Ireland, Noel O'Keeffe Cork County Engineer, P J Rudden President of Engineers Ireland and Eoghan Lehane Engineering Manager Commissioners of Irish Lights

The public footfall and economic importance of the Mizen Head Bridge is unbelievable in terms of tourism value. I would not have thought it possible that a facility in so remote a location would be such a public and tourism magnet. However, when you visit Mizen you are left in no doubt as to the reason for this - the views from the new bridge and the newly constructed surrounding platforms are truly stunning. When I arrived there the large visitor car park was already full. The tourism 'economic case' for the new bridge was so strong that Failte Ireland contributed some 80% of the overall cost of the new bridge construction and viewing platforms which speaks for itself.

The new bridge designed by RPS and built by Carillion Irishenco at a cost approx €1.8million is a near replica of the original Victorian steel structure constructed in 1909. It spans 50m from the mainland to the neighbouring island and soars 45m above the swelling gorge of the Atlantic Ocean.

The project was completed to a high standard with no accidents on time and within budget over a 2 year period. As the County Engineer describes it so graphically it 'involved building a bridge within a bridge' - using the old bridge as part scaffolding for the new bridge and then when the new bridge was built the remaining parts of the old bridge were demolished in a logistical sequence. Tremendous skill was apparently shown by the contractor Carillion Irishenco who had to access the entire construction along a steep 1 metre path using a dumper the size of a ride-on lawn mower to transport materials in and out of the site to the nearest public road 300 metres away.

The project is already shorted listed for a British Institution of Structural Engineers heritage award. Interestingly too, both Cork Institute of Technology and UCD on behalf of the Irish Concrete Society are overseeing concrete technology research using permanently installed instrumentation within the bridge structure which will be of value to generations of structural engineers to come.

Monday, 8 August 2011

July Executive Meeting

Strangely, the July Executive Meeting was held on August 4th this year due to the original July date clashing with other events. This was the first meeting of the newly elected Executive for 2011/2012, and it was great to sincerely welcome the 5 new members in particular - Tom Cleary, Justine Butler, Declan Howard, Dave Kelleher and Peter Quinn. All bring a new perspective either in terms of diverse skills and regions.  Four are private sector and one public sector. One is based in Northern Ireland and one in UK.

The Executive meets monthly (except in August usually!) to make governance decisions for Engineers Ireland while the Council which meets less frequently is the corporate policy making body. The Council with 44 members elects the Executive of 16 members including President, 2 Vice Presidents and Immediate Past President and Chairperson of the Finance Committee. The President chairs both the Council and Executive.

This was a most important meeting as we debated and decided on the future requirements for the award of title of Chartered Engineer for graduates who qualify post 2013. In so doing we raised the future requirement for Chartered Engineer to possess a 5 Year Master's Degree in Engineering or equivalent rather than a pure Bachelor's degree. This effectively raises the standard and quality of the Irish CEng title which is already classed internationally as in the first league. In all cases we will continue to require a period of Technical Training usually 2 years followed by at least 2 years of Professional Experience in all comprising some 4 to 5 years experience post college before becoming a Chartered Engineer in ones late 20s or thereafter. This new requirement flagged up some years ago is a response to the Bologna Declaration of 1999 to ensure the convergence of higher educational requirements for professions across Europe.

Since 1969, Engineers Ireland is the only body in Ireland who can legally award the qualification of Chartered Engineer. It is critically important though that our Chartered Engineer qualification is consistent with the best internationally especially in the English speaking world (UK US Canada Australia) as increasingly Irish graduates are travelling abroad to seek work and experience in those countries.

We also discussed at some length a promotional campaign commencing this autumn to highlight the importance of Chartered Engineers to society in general and to economic recovery in particular. Chartered Engineers will help create and drive the new Smart Economy, keep our clean drinking water flowing, develop our energy and communications systems, make our transport systems safer and make new biomedical discoveries to help save and prolong human life.

It was President Barack Obama, himself a lawyer, who once said in terms of economic growth 'Give me less lawyers and more engineers!'. No offence to my wonderful friends in the legal profession but he was really pointing to the reputation of engineers as 'doers' and indeed our own Taoiseach made a similar remark about engineers recently in Galway at the opening of the new NUIG Engineering School which I attended.

We also discussed our 2012 Annual Conference in Belfast to mark the centenary of the Titanic Story, which will recall the Regeneration of Titanic Quarter and other exciting new economic developments in Northern Ireland. We would like the maximum numbers of members from the South to travel North for that occasion to join our Northern colleagues on April 26th and 27th 2012.

As an Ulsterman myself I will be leading the charge as Belfast will be celebrating the city's proud history and heritage to a worldwide audience. Few realise that in the 1911 Census, when the Titanic was built, that Belfast (pop 386947) was the largest city in Ireland followed by Dublin (pop 304802).