A passion for learning and teaching physics
Dr Eilish McLoughlin, Associate Professor and Head of School of DCU Physical Sciences, is on a mission to influence the learning and teaching of physics in Ireland, writes Seán Duke.
Eilish has received several awards and accolades for her contributions to physics and STEM Education in Ireland. She was honoured in 2022 with the Institute of Physics Lawrence Bragg Gold Medal and Prize for outstanding leadership in physics teacher education and significant impact on the learning and teaching of physics in Ireland. In 2019, she was honoured with the Institute of Physics Lise Meitner Silver Medal for widening public engagement and education in physics.
She received Science Foundation Ireland Communicator of the Year Award in 2019 and DCU’s President’s Award for Engagement in 2017 and 2022. Tackling real world problems and fixing things on the family farm was the spark for Dr McLoughlin’s lifelong interest in science and her passion for learning was inspired by her mother who was one of her primary school teachers.
This later evolved into a passion for physics education and developing programmes and opportunities to improve the learning and teaching of physics in Irish schools. A proud Mayo woman, Eilish was one of eight girls from her year group to study Leaving Certificate Physics. She loved the subject and completed the BSc Applied Physics at DCU, following her two older sisters to DCU.
Anna completed the BSc Electronic Engineering while Bríd completed the BSc Biotechnology at DCU. Her younger sister Tricia also completed the BSc Applied Physics. Following her undergraduate degree, she completed her doctorate in nanotechnology under the supervision of Dr Tony Cafolla. She met her husband Ger in DCU where he also studied a BSc and PhD in Physics and they have three budding physicists in Cian, Seán and Aoife. Eilish joined the academic staff in DCU School of Physical Sciences in 2000 and quickly realised that her passion was for teaching physics. She received the DCU President’s Award for Teaching in 2005 and National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2010.
The STEM Teacher Internship (STInt) Programme, which provides pre-service STEM teachers with paid internships in STEM roles in industry was initiated by Eilish in 2016. Eilish leads the STInt programme in collaboration with her DCU colleague Prof Deirdre Butler and supported by 30% Club, Connecting Women in Technology and Science Foundation Ireland. STInt has grown from providing 5 internship roles in 2016 to providing 180 internships across 40 organisations over the past seven years. STInt began as a DCU only initiative but has now expanded to be national programme that provides internships to STEM teachers from MU, UCD, UG, UL, UCC, and TCD.
“The success of the STInt programme is based on universities and industries collaborating to provide immersive experiences to primary and second level teachers across a diverse range of STEM roles and industries. We want to support teachers in designing STEM learning experiences in their classroom that represent real-life, real- world problems and challenges,” says Eilish.
Eilish also wants to tackle the low take up of physics at Leaving Certificate with about 13% of students opting to study the subject. Most Irish students, over 95%, study Junior Cycle Science, but only a small proportion (maybe 1 in 20) of these students benefit from learning physics from a qualified physics teacher. Currently, about 25% of second level schools do not offer Physics as a Leaving Certificate option.
In Ireland and across the globe there is a severe shortage of qualified physics teachers in schools. The Professional Diploma in Teaching Physics is designed to upskill second-level teachers to be qualified to teach Leaving Certificate Physics. This programme is funded by the Department of Education & Skills and is led by DCU in collaboration with UL and UG. Eilish has led this programme since 2019 with a target to graduate 150 new physics teachers over the next three years.
In her role as Head of School, Eilish leads on developing and providing innovative undergraduate and postgraduate physics programmes at DCU. In 2022/23 there are 292 students registered in the school, over 42% female, and representing more than 24 nationalities.
“In 2022, we saw the largest ever intake into first year Physics at DCU in our 42 year history through our Physics General Entry route. Our physics students choose in year two which pathway they wish to follow, to complete a BSc in Applied Physics, Physics with Astronomy, Physics with Biomedical Sciences or Physics with Data Analytics”.
Seán Dukes is the communications lead for the DCU Faculty of Science and Health