Secondary school students are being challenged to make better college choices when their turn to fill out the CAO comes around, thanks to a new educational charity run by a past UCD student. Patrick Guiney, a UCD Arts graduate, and former UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) Campaigns and Communications Officer, is one of the founders of Slingshot Academy, an initiative which aims to inform school students about the reality of third-level education.

Slingshot Academy has grown out of the original Student Slingshot event, which was held last November in Dublin Castle. The Academy is designed to build out from a one-off show into monthly events, under the goal of “protecting the future by creating it.” The first of the Slingshot Academy events will take place this October and November. Each one will play host to 150 students in the National Gallery of Ireland.

The Academy is focused on educating secondary school pupils on Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths (STEM) and entrepreneurship-based topics to inspire young people. Each of the events will see third-level students take to the stage as speakers and mentors.

One such mentor is Ryan Kane, a 3rd Year Computer Science student in UCD, who joined Slingshot back in March. He said that his decision to get involved was due to the fact that he would have liked to have participated in such a project while he was still in school.

His role involves introducing students to computer science and teaching students about computer programming, also known as “coding”. He believes that “many students will think of a subject like Computer Science and instantly write it off without really knowing what it’s all about”, something which he will be aiming to change at the upcoming Academy, where many of the attendees will be coding for the first time.

The Academy is free for students to attend, and is funded by Accenture Ireland, The National Art Gallery of Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Bank of Ireland, The Dublin Commissioner for Startups and money from Guiney himself.

The idea for Slingshot was borne out of a lack of guidance Guiney felt he missed out on when in school. This was compounded by his early experience in UCD. These episodes led to him developing Student Slingshot after he finished a Master’s degree at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. His vision for the Academy is ambitious and far-reaching;

“Our ambition as a team has always been, and always will be, helping the young people of Ireland who have experienced uncertainty and anxiety when making the transition from second to third level. This stems from collective difficulties which we ourselves experienced in our early college years. For Slingshot Academy to succeed is to help one single student find the path which is right for them and to prevent the anguish felt with an ill-informed incorrect choice. Long term success will be measured on multiple programmes like what we’ve started in Dublin, taking place in every country around Ireland and abroad.”

Since leaving UCD, Guiney has being heavily involved in entrepreneurship. Reflecting on his experience as an entrepreneur, Guiney said that if he could change anything, he would like to see a fund or organisation which educated young people about entrepreneurship and starting a business. He described the ideal solution as something which is “almost like a recognised 3rd level institution that develops these skills. There’s a plethora of these over in the States and something like that” is what he would have “jumped at when finishing up my Leaving Certificate.”

The initiative comes at a time where students are dropping out of college in large numbers. For Guiney, his early experience in UCD had what he described as a “profound effect” on him. He said that the “sheer size and somewhat lonely nature of such large class sizes in Arts” led to a “difficult time” for him as a first year student, as he “struggled to adapt to third level education.”

During his later role with UCDSU, Guiney said that he would “regularly meet and speak with students who wanted to leave college because they’d made a mistake with their course.” Kane echoed the same sentiments, and noted how he knew several students who chose a course only to find out it was “nothing like what they had expected”, which often led to them dropping out or trying to change course, “which is not ideal given the effort that goes into securing a place in college.”

Studies on drop-out rates in Irish colleges have estimated that around 18%, or one in six students fail to complete their first year of college. This equates to about 7,000 students each year. Drop-out rates then fall significantly with each further year of study that a student completes. In general, Computer Science courses have the highest drop-out rate, with an average of one in four failing to finish their degree.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) published a report, titled “A Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education Institutes 2010/11 to 2011/12”, in 2014. It claimed that students who scored lower points in the Leaving Certificate were more likely to quit third-level education.

The report stated that UCD had the lowest overall rate of drop-outs for universities during the years surveyed, at 7%, compared to an average of 9%. The biggest group of drop-outs came from “Construction and Related Fields” at 11%, while the rate for “Social Sciences, Business, Law and Humanities” was 8%.

Author: Cian Carton