#MakeAFuss: How one teacher went beyond the classroom and transformed her career
"Go for it and don't be afraid."
If ever you needed proof that becoming a teacher can lead to career progression far beyond the classroom, you only need look to Sheila Porter.
After over two decades working as a science teacher in Dublin, Sheila took her passion for encouraging young minds to a new level and founded SciFest in 2006.
The STEM-focused programme sees thousands of students from across the country create projects for local, regional and national competitions.
“I used to love doing project work with students,” Sheila tells us.
“There’s nothing more exciting than when a student comes to you and shows you something they’ve done and learned for themselves, and I felt that there wasn’t enough opportunity for students to display what they’d created.”
Sheila approached Tallaght IT and proposed a one-day science fair.
That was the start of a 12-year journey that’s seen over 60,000 young people from around Ireland take part and sponsors like Intel, Boston Scientific and Science Foundation Ireland come on board.
She and husband George, a retired science teacher, now run SciFest full-time together.
They have been married for 46 years and “make a good team”, she tells us, though she can’t help but bring work home.
“I’ll often be told not to be talking about it over breakfast!
“My children will say, 'oh Scifest again' but I suppose I think if you want to run anything and make it successful that passion has to be there."
It’s certainly different to life in the classroom but plenty of what Sheila gleaned in her time teaching still applies, she says.
“I go out to a lot of schools and make teachers' packs and help with the judging. It’s my favourite part.
“You’re still teaching and sharing your experience. We’re there to support and encourage.”
"They want to save the world."
It’s a combination of ingenuity and hard work that make great discoveries and inventions - but a healthy dose of creativity is also key.
Sheila says that many of SciFest's most successful entrants over the years have been those who’ve taken inspiration from their own lives.
“The winner last year, his grandfather had a stroke and he couldn’t shave himself so he designed a piece of apparatus he could put on his head to shave.
“Another year, there was a girl who had asthma. Her mother had taught her to hum into a bag to help her breathe so she did a study on that.
“A lot of the really good projects are driven by them wanting to help. They want to save the world.”
This year’s SciFest winner is Adam Kelly, a fifth year Skerries Community College pupil who impressed with his open source solution to stimulating quantum computing.
He will go on to represent Ireland at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona next year.
Sheila has been bringing SciFest winners to the competition for seven years now and believes that Irish students more than hold their own alongside those from the other 70 countries represented there.
“What amazes them in America is that our students are willing to do it outside of school.
“Any of the students we see (in SciFest), the majority of them will have done it in their own time.
“They have that drive in them and that desire to succeed and to learn more - we still have that in Ireland.
“When you’re judging a project you can tell the enthusiasm.”
"It is hard but you have to believe that anything is possible."
You can’t talk about young people in science and engineering without mentioning the issue of gender.
It seems that whenever we hear about STEM, we hear that women aren’t represented.
That real-world truism doesn’t reflect what’s happening in schools or at SciFest, according to Sheila, where 62 per cent of participants are girls.
She puts the gap in the workplace down to how unforgiving the science and tech industries can be to women when it comes to having a family.
She herself took ten years out of teaching to raise her children and admits that she was nervous about going back to work.
“I think it is a lack of confidence. It is hard but you have to believe that anything is possible. If they have the courage, they can do it.
“Teaching is different but in industry, things change so fast that it is very difficult to go back.”
It’s on a note of self-belief that Sheila finishes our chat.
If she had any advice for young women at the beginning of their careers, she says, it would be to have courage and not be deterred by anything.
“I always think that anything is possible. That if you have an idea, to go for it and to not be afraid."
When it comes to careers, we know that Irish women are a force to be reckoned with. Here at Her.ie, we're making a fuss of the ladies who’ve made a fuss on their journey to success.
We want to celebrate the grafters and the risk-takers, those who’ve followed a passion or spotted a niche, those still forging their own path and those who are at the top of their game.
In our series Make A Fuss, we’re talking to inspiring Irish women about their careers, what they’ve learned along the way and where they’re going next.
Know a kickass woman in business? Get in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.