Northern Ireland Leaders Look to WPI to Help Fill STEM Gap

Further education students from Northern Ireland participate in WPI’s renowned Frontiers program to gain critical STEM skills; Northern Ireland seeking to create 20,000 new technology jobs by 2020
July 24, 2014

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Northern Ireland employment and education leaders, continuing efforts to build the technology economy in that province, have partnered with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to help with a series of new initiatives.

As part of the effort, eight high school-age students from Northern Ireland – four young men and four young women attending "further education" colleges – are participating in Frontiers II, a WPI summer program that offers high school students the opportunity to participate in robotics, engineering exploration, global sustainability, or the Women's Leadership Academy. The program runs until Aug. 1.

WPI provides one of the largest and most comprehensive university-based K–12 STEM outreach programs in the nation. During the past 10 years, WPI staff and faculty have engaged more than 115,000 girls and boys and 5,300 educators through STEM-focused programs that are targeted at students in elementary, middle, and secondary schools; programs that seek to engage girls and students from underrepresented minorities in STEM disciplines; and programs that provide training and classroom resources for teachers.

Between the two Frontiers sessions, approximately 250 students participate in this selective program each year and many end up applying to WPI. This year’s freshman class, for example, will include 50 Frontiers alumni.

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The students' visit is an outgrowth of an ongoing relationship between WPI and Northern Ireland. In January, Stephen Flavin, vice president of academic and corporate development at WPI, and Linda Looft, assistant vice president of government and community relations at WPI, participated in the State Department’s inaugural Partnership Opportunity Delegation in Northern Ireland. Among other activities, the program explored creating a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-based summer camp in Northern Ireland.

Then in March, Northern Ireland leaders, led by Stephen Farry, minister of the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland, visited WPI to gain a deeper understanding about WPI's STEM programs and form a partnership with WPI.

"We agreed at that time that we'd like to form a partnership," said Justin Kerr, a member of the Skills Policy Branch of the Department for Employment and Learning. "There is so much for us to learn here at WPI."

Kerr noted that Northern Ireland officials want to create 20,000 new STEM jobs by 2020. "We know it's ambitious, but we want to set our sights high," said Kerr. "To have the economy that we want we need to have these types of STEM jobs."

Kerr said an increased focus on STEM is a national priority in Northern Ireland. "We know we need more people in STEM subjects, and not just for the department but for whole government in Northern Ireland," he said.

And now, Kerr said he is hopeful the students will gain valuable insights from attending the Frontiers program. "We have high hopes for this young contingency. They earned the right to be here and they are some of our brightest young people. We want them to learn about STEM subjects and apply their knowledge back home."

Stewart Matthews, first secretary of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington, D.C., which seeks ongoing diplomatic ties with North America, noted that Northern Ireland is engaging in such initiatives to change the way economic development is done there. "Historically we've had lots of public sector support, but we need to build up the private sector in Northern Ireland," said Matthews. "To get there, we're focusing on building entrepreneurship and developing skills and abilities in STEM education."

David Brockbank, the students' chaperone and a lecturer at Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland, noted that the students were selected as a result of a competition called the Best Awards, which covers STEM subject areas. He had high praise for WPI's Frontiers program.

"The WPI curriculum is very well organized, and the professors are all excellent facilitators," said Brockbank. "It’s a very useful approach and something I can incorporate into my own teaching."

Suzanne Sontgerath, co-director of the Frontiers program and associate director of Admissions at WPI, said the students are able to interact with other campers from six countries and 15 states. "This has been a longstanding important program to WPI to make sure we're reaching out to K-12 students to get them excited about STEM," she said.

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