I attended the third annual conference Science, Engineering Communications and Outreach conference earlier this week at Engineers Ireland. As incoming President of EI next week, I had the privilege of presenting the annual award for Science, Engineering and Technology Awareness to Jim Cooke.
I had not met Jim before, but had heard of his remarkable work. Jim has been a physics and mathematics teacher at the Christian Brothers School in Synge Street, in Dublin city centre, for over 40 years. He also reintroduced the teaching of Applied Mathematics at the school, after it had been absent from the school curriculum for a very long time.
Jim has had an extraordinary success at the BT Young Scientists Exhibition. Two of his students have been outright individual winners: Andrei Triffo last January, for his project “Infinite Sums of Zeta Functions and other Dirichlet Series”; and Ronan Larkin in 2004 for “Generalised Continued Fractions”. Jim has also coached two runner-ups, and numerous category winners over the years. Jim had in fact just returned with Andrei from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Nevada, where Andrei had won third place worldwide in his category.
If you are not aware of the Young Scientists Exhibition, it is important to realise that the projects are fully undertaken by the students themselves, with their teachers guiding and coaching. The students are interviewed at length, particularly those being considered for awards, by a panel of judges, and in depth about their projects. Jim has therefore been able to consistently teach his students with a very high standard of mathematics in a way which the students manifestly fully understand and comprehend the principles involved. He has clearly been a really inspirational teacher.
It is not only sad, but also of very great concern, that the teaching of mathematics and of the pure sciences at the honours level in the secondary schools across Ireland has diminished in recent years. A number of schools, both in the inner city areas and also in some cases outside of the major urban areas, are reputedly no longer offering honours level mathematics to their students, citing government cutbacks, lack of capacity and in some cases lack of interest. In response, I have personally heard from civil servants at our Department of Education and Science that they believe the various teachers’ unions are to blame.
It was wonderful therefore to meet Jim, and to find somebody who clearly has achieved exceptional standards and inspiration in his students, in what may have been very challenging circumstances. Jim, in his acceptance speech, was calm, quiet and perhaps a little awed and surprised that he had been so honoured. He also expressed some concerns for the future of the teaching of Mathematics, which I share and which I hope Engineers Ireland can play a role in addressing.
Jim, you are an outstanding representative of your profession and I trust your colleagues nationwide can take heart and warmth from your career and your accomplishments. I wish you well in your imminent retirement and you will remain one of the quiet heros not only for so many people who went to CBS Synge St., but also for Ireland.