Ireland Education and children's services

How Offaly County Council is building the society and workforce of the future

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Offaly County Council

This article explores Offaly County Council’s STEAM Robotics Programme, a nationally and internationally recognised initiative led by the Council that is having a real impact on the developmental needs of children in the Midlands.

Education is a responsibility which has migrated away from the local authority system in Ireland since independence. In not having a core role it is little wonder that spending on local government in Ireland is so low when compared to other systems across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It also accounts in large measure for the clear gap in employment in the sector, with less than 30,000 people in Local Government in Ireland, while a similarly sized jurisdiction such as Scotland has over 110,000 people or indeed the Nordic Countries where education is such a central local role.

Notwithstanding the virtual absence of responsibilities in education, several local authorities across Ireland have managed to develop niche roles in the provision of education for their local population and one of these I am happy to say is a unique initiative which Offaly County Council is at the core of delivery. This initiative is the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Robotics Programme, now a nationally and internationally recognised initiative led by the Council, which is having a real impact on the developmental needs of children in the Midlands. In the following case study, we look at how a small, rural local authority can kick well above its weight in taking the initiative to support sustainable development and, at the same time, create the space for children to blossom and look to their future with ambition and hope.

The programme

This STEAM Robotics Programme is now in all primary and post-primary schools in Offaly. The programme has developed so that over the past years over 2500 students annually compete in the VEX Robotics Competition. To get to this level of participation in an international context, Offaly County Council, in collaboration with Munster Technological University, has been investing in the County’s future generations by giving them the skills required for jobs, many of which are as yet unknown. Students who are developing their STEAM skills are more likely to invent, build, drive and innovate future technologies that can benefit their lives and communities. The project collaborates with industry, education, and government to support digital education and training to ensure greater citizen engagement and inclusion, which is needed to prepare our students for future jobs. These children will drive the Offaly economy for the next 50 years and will ultimately sustain rural communities. This programme gives children as young as five years old their first opportunity to learn about engineering and robotics while having fun.

What were the aims and objectives of the initiative?

Offaly County Council believes that STEAM education is needed to ensure today’s students are qualified for Future Jobs, the Council is shaping the County’s smart future through STEAM using VEX Robotics. Jobs and employment opportunities are changing in the Midlands, and primary school students are at the perfect age to begin their STEAM education. The Council rightly believes that STEAM is key to unlocking a better, smarter and more resilient future for Offaly. The success of the primary and post-primary school programmes allows students to continue their STEAM education as they move from primary to post-primary school. A very real, tangible outcome of the Council building this initiative is that the County had only one post-primary school in Offaly teaching Computer Science for the Leaving Certificate – the final exams at post-primary level in Ireland. The County now has two schools teaching Computer Science, with an additional two schools starting in September 2024. They have a partnership with Laois County Council, Laois and Offaly Education and Training Board (LOETB) and Atlantic Technological University (ATU). Donegal Letterkenny where other teachers are working towards getting their Higher Diploma in Science in Computing for Educators. This will enable more schools to teach Computer Science at Leaving Certificate level. Students who are leaving primary school are now looking for Computer Science as a subject option in post-primary school due to the STEAM Programme.

In what way is the project innovative?

The future will always be uncertain. Nonetheless technology is at the forefront of innovation to position people and communities to take advantage of the future. Introducing STEAM in early childhood helps children develop tech skills and future-proof their education. The programme delivered by Offaly County Council requires that girls and boys are equally represented. 65% of children entering school will eventually work at jobs that don’t exist today. STEAM led education will help prepare children and communities for future jobs. This project connects students and companies who use robotics and electronics in their businesses, building on Offaly’s strong heritage in science and engineering. It encourages teachers to be innovators and develops digital literacy as the new global economy demands communities with the skills to migrate towards digital societies as well as creating a robust workforce.

Offaly County Council is innovating and transforming through a range of business, community, and educational initiatives and the VEX Robotics Competition is just one of these initiatives. As a result, and unusually for an Irish local authority, it has a full time STEAM Educational Officer who works with all the schools in the County. Offaly County Council is the first Local Authority to have someone working fulltime in this role.

This programme is also being integrated into other areas including working with Housing in some of the Council’s own estates, working with community and Offaly Age Friendly, Men’s Sheds where men get to build robots and compete in the competitions and in our libraries doing workshops and camps with students, to highlight just a few examples.

Who was the target sector and how did they benefit?

School is the most formative time in a young student’s life. Students get to design, build, code, and compete with their robot and it gives children as young as five years old their first opportunity to learn about engineering, coding, and robotics while having fun. The best way to instil a lifelong interest in the areas of STEAM is to provide a fun, engaging, and hands-on opportunity to explore and experience it for themselves. All schools receive the equipment, training, and resources required to deliver this programme, and each year we bring all schools together to complete, learn and have fun at the Offaly VEX Robotics Championships.

A gender divide persists in STEAM education, and female interests in STEAM lags their male counterparts. All schools that participate ensure that girls and boys are equally represented on the school teams where possible. This year for example, there is more girls involved compared to boys. Empowering girls in STEAM activities is not just about equality; it is about opportunities, innovation, and sustainable development. After parents, teachers are usually the most influential adults in children’s lives and working with teachers on this programme gives them the support they require to develop resilience in our students. It also encourages teachers to be innovators and develops digital literacy with is very important for rural communities.

Offaly County Council

The quantifiable benefits resulting from implementation of the initiative include:

In broad terms, some 2500 students and 250 teachers in the County are now involved each year. All schools in Offaly are now doing coding with the young people of the County. A full-time STEAM Educational Officer is working in Offaly supporting the schools, teachers, and students. Consequently, digital Skills in Offaly are improving while Council links to industry are being strengthened.

Across the Midlands, Smart Specialisation is seeing several Industry Clusters grow and develop. The regional clusters are creating ecosystems which aid economic growth for partners by focusing on cooperation and collaboration. These bring together Industry, Government and Education with Local Authorities at the forefront of this collaboration. VEX Robotics continuing to draw support from regional enterprise partners, with the regions ICT (Information and Communications Technology), Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing Clusters, as well as key regional employers including Ericsson, Grant Engineering, Mergon, Dekotek and Robotics & Drives. By equipping students with STEAM skills from an early age, the region is nurturing and developing the engineering and tech talent of the future while highlighting career opportunities here in the region.

Offaly County Council are, through this initiative, future proofing the County and its students in an exciting and engaging way. This project will undoubtedly ensure that today’s students are qualified for the jobs of tomorrow, with this programme driving Offaly’s economic ambitions, supporting innovation, and providing the foundations for future prosperity. The programme is delivered in collaboration with Munster Technological University and Offaly Local Enterprise Office. In the Council itself, the Library Service, Engineering, and Information Technology Departments are all playing a leading role. Other Partners include Primary and Post Primary School in Offaly, the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD), the Department of Education and Skills and Professional Development Service for Teachers (DES/PDST), Offaly Local Development Company (OLDC), LOETB, and Athlone and Laois Education Centre.

How is this initiative funded?

This project has been funding by Offaly County Council, DRCD, National Just Transition Fund, Munster Technological University, Offaly Local Development Company, LOETB, and primary and post primary schools in Offaly.

The impact has been huge in Offaly, with the programme in its 5th full year. Just a small but critical example of how Councils in Ireland can play a central facilitating role in the future of their communities.



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