STEM – Education for Europe's Future

Ireland Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce

Luxembourg City

24 November 2015


Good evening,

I'm delighted to be here discussing this vital issue. Europe is fortunate in its strong tradition of education, but nothing stands still. Technology, higher education, the workplace - these are all developing at an unprecedented pace; we have to anticipate developments and shape progress.

I'm Provost of Trinity College Dublin, which is Ireland's number one university and is ranked in Europe's Top 25. Trinity is a multidisciplinary university of 24 Schools. I'm a graduate of the School of Engineering and was previously professor of bioengineering.

I'm also a member of the governing board of the EIT, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The EIT is a body of the European Union with a mission to increase Europe's growth and competitiveness by reinforcing innovation capacity. And in this capacity I've given a lot of thought to improving innovation training for Europe's students.

Let me begin by telling you a bit about STEM education in Trinity. Ireland is atypical in Europe because of our fast-growing student population. This slide projects the student population in Ireland for the next twelve years, until 2028. This year we had just under 45,000 new entrants to third level; by 2028 this will grow to about 56,000.

graduate projections tcd trinity college dublin

The demand for STEM subjects will rise higher than for other disciplines. Since 2010 the demand for Engineering and Computer Science has risen by over a third, and the demand for Natural Science has risen by 17 percent.

So there's a tremendous opportunity in Ireland, and a challenge. We need to prepare for an increase of students, particularly STEM students. Growth is always exciting, but at the same time, Ireland, like many countries in Europe, is facing an absolute crisis in the financing of higher education. The old model of state-funded education is declining, and we have yet to agree on the right model to replace it with. The challenge in Ireland is made more acute because of the projected increase in the number of students.

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I'm not going to devote my talk to the funding issue. But if we don't sort out funding in Ireland, and quickly, then any other measures we take are window-dressing. I would favour a multi-faceted approach, with funding coming from the state, student fees, industry partnerships, commercialisation and philanthropy. That is, in fact, what's happening in Trinity. Half of our revenue now comes from non-State sources. We are proactive about growing this. Because such funding is needed for universities to remain globally competitive. It's no coincidence that the highest-ranked universities are consistently in the US, the UK, and increasingly Asia. In Europe, we need to confront this.

That's all I'm going to say on funding, because we're here to talk about STEM education, but let's keep in mind that excellent universities are essential to Europe's competitiveness, and excellent universities need significant revenue.

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Let me return to STEM education in Trinity and Ireland. The demand for these disciplines has risen in recent years, thanks, in great part, to the proactivity of many organisations in encouraging interest at primary and secondary level. In Trinity we're playing our part in this.

Seven years ago we launched, on campus, Science Gallery, with the mission to present science research and discoveries as visual exhibitions, and so inspire young people with an awareness of how exciting science can be. The Science Gallery is where 'science and art collide' in free public exhibitions devised by academics, artists, and curators.

The current exhibition, Trauma opened four days ago. It explores psychological, physical and societal trauma, and is co-curated by neuroscientists from Trinity in Dublin and King's College in London.

To date, over two million people have visited Science Gallery. Trinity is now launching a network of global Science Galleries in partnership with leading universities in urban centres, including in Bangalore, Melbourne, and London.

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science gallery torture ireland dublin

The Science Gallery is on campus, in the centre of the city. In Trinity, we're lucky in our location. Here, in red, is Trinity in the heart of Dublin city. Here are the multinational companies clustered around us; here are the start-up clusters, and here are the creative industries, which include leading museums, galleries, and theatres.

dublins creative quarter trinity college dublin

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Our position is particularly significant because Ireland is European headquarters to 9 of the top 10 global software companies, and 9 of the top 10 US technology companies; and to 15 of the top 20 MedTech companies and seven of the top 10 industrial automation companies. The World Bank now lists Dublin as one of the top 10 places in the world to do business.

So Trinity is at the centre of a growing European innovation hub. This has great advantages. For instance, in terms of STEM education, Google is a significant supporter of Science Gallery and is also a partner with Trinity in 'the Certificate in 21st Century Teaching & Learning' which enables teachers to learn best practise in computer programming and the use of technology in the classroom, as well as in leadership and change management, and classroom-based research.

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Thanks to initiatives by government, schools, universities and industry, we are seeing high-calibre and committed students entering third level in Ireland to study STEM subjects.

Trinity is recognised for high-quality research. We currently have twelve European Research Council grants active on campus. In interdisciplinary fields like nano-science, immunology, and ageing, we are recognised globally as being among the world's leading institutes.

Our staff are proactive about translating research into products and services. Since 2008 we have averaged in Trinity seven new campus companies a year, and these have included very successful companies such as 'Thrive', a personal 3-D audio technology for virtual reality applications which was acquired by Google in July; and Identigen, enabling the trace back of food products, which recently received a €12 million venture capital investment.

Our strong curriculum is complemented by extra-curricular opportunities. LaunchBox, our undergraduate business incubator programme, provides students with seed funding, office space, and mentoring.

Last year it entered the prestigious University Business Incubator index as a 'Top Challenger', placed just outside the world's 'Top 25' from 800 incubator schemes assessed globally.

One LaunchBox project, FoodCloud, has had particular success. It's a social enterprise which bridges the gap between food waste and food poverty by creating a 'virtual food bank' app, linking restaurants and catering companies to charities. FoodCloud has already signed up the Tesco supermarket chain, and its undergraduate founder, Iseult Ward, was named one of TIME magazine's Next Generation Leaders.

Our college initiatives are having effect. Last month, the private equity and venture capital-focused research firm, PitchBook, published the results of an independent survey they have conducted into undergraduate alumni who go on to found companies that receive first-round venture capital backing.

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pitchbook ranking tcd


PitchBook found that Trinity has produced more entrepreneurs than any other university in Europe. Between 2010 and 2015 Trinity produced 114 entrepreneurs and 106 companies. By comparison, in second place Oxford University produced 72 entrepreneurs and 68 companies.

When we talk about 'educating for Europe's future' – top of the list has to be educating entrepreneurs and innovators because this is an area where Europe has traditionally fallen behind.

In Trinity we have confidence in what we're doing. It's not about changing our model, it's about finding ways to sustain it.

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Let me end on two notes. First, the focus of today's discussion is STEM education. I understand this - we need STEM graduates, and it's important to take proactive steps to attract students of aptitude, particularly girls.

However, when it comes to 'educating for Europe's future', we shouldn't limit this to 'STEM education'. Europe needs graduates in different disciplines, and students should study what they're good at.

We have recently launched the Trinity Education Project, an initiative to agree a set of graduate attributes for all our courses, and ensure that our curriculum delivers on these. These are the draft attributes presented at a consultation with employers in different industries.

graduate attributes tcd trinity college dublin

As you see, nothing here is exclusive to STEM subjects. Instead of focussing on discipline, we focus on attributes. Some jobs look for very specific skills – but frequently it is mindset and commitment that count, and all students can cultivate these.

I've seen first-hand how well multidisciplinarity works in Trinity. There is great synergy when you bring students of different disciples together on one campus; and students from all our faculties are hugely sought after by employers.

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I will close on an exciting initiative which is about using STEM education for Europe's – and indeed the world's – future. In Trinity we're planning for an Energy, Environment and Engineering Institute, which we're calling E3.

With E3 we're trying something radical – to alter the way we, as humans, interact with the planet. The traditional definition of engineering is (I quote) "the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man".

That's a succinct definition. But directing nature for our convenience has led to problems, and seems no longer sustainable. That's why engineers and others are starting to think about turning this definition on its head – directing human ingenuity and technology to recognize the value of our natural capital.

Our planet is increasingly shaped by technology, and it's critical that we humans make technological interventions that increase the sustainability of the planet. We should go further than just seeking to mitigate emerging challenges such as energy security and climate change. Can we create technologies in symbiosis with the natural world so that technology becomes an 'evolutionary force' directed for the good of life on earth?
Can we use technology and engineering to strengthen the resilience of our natural capital? Those are the aims of E3.

Engineering, natural sciences, and computer sciences will collaborate in E3. It is ethically underpinned and will benefit from the thinking of social scientists, as well as business and law. E3 will be a College-wide institute, showcasing Trinity's strengths in interdisciplinarity.

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E3 trinity college dublin

It's truly exciting for universities to be in the position of encouraging collaboration between researchers for initiatives which will help economic growth and confront global challenges.

This is a period of challenge and opportunity for research and higher education. In Europe we can do our best by working together and developing shared practises and models. I welcome this forum and thank you for inviting me.

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