The dwindling, peaceful glimmer of twilight promises a clear night. The vivid yellows and oranges give way to more subtle hues until a deep and ever-darkening blue takes over. Slowly, the velvety sky turns into a black canvas peppered with twinkling lights, as the first eerie cries of shearwater birds are heard in the distance.
This magical spectacle plays out most evenings at Dwejra, Gozo. This popular tourist site is one of the last places on the Maltese Islands that offer a sufficiently dark sky to observe our home galaxy — the Milky Way. The proliferation of badly designed exterior lighting all over the islands means that it is impossible to fully escape the deleterious effects of light pollution. This westernmost region of Gozo is as far as one can get to escape the glow of artificial light emanating from the rest of the Maltese Islands.
As universities and research institutions look to protect the knowledge they develop, András Havasi questions time frames, limited resources, andassociated risks.
The last decade has seen the number of patent applications worldwide grow exponentially. Today’s innovation- and knowledge-driven economy certainly has a role to play in this.
With over 21,000 European and around 8,000 US patent applications in 2018, the fields of medical technologies and pharmaceuticals—healthcare industries—are leading the pack.
Why do we need all these patents?
A patent grants its owner the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing an invention for a limited time period of 20 years. What this means is market exclusivity should the invention be commercialised within this period. If the product sells, the owner will benefit financially. The moral of the story? A patent is but one early piece of the puzzle in a much longer, more arduous journey towards success.
Following a patent application, an invention usually needs years of development for it to reach its final product stage. And there are many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ along the way to launching a product in a market; only at this point can a patent finally start delivering the financial benefits of exclusivity.
Product development is a race against time. The longer the development phase, the shorter the effective market exclusivity a product will have, leaving less time to make a return on the development and protection costs. If this remaining time is not long enough, and the overall balance stays in the negative, the invention could turn into a financial failure.
Some industries are more challenging than others. The IT sector is infamous for its blink-and-you-miss-it evolution. The average product life cycle on software has been reduced from three–five years to six–12 months. However, more traditional sectors cannot move that quickly.
The health sector is one example. Research, development, and regulatory approval takes much longer, spanning an average of 12–13 years from a drug’s inception to it being released on the market, leaving only seven to eight years for commercial exploitation.
So the real value of a patent is the effective length of market exclusivity, factored in with the size of the market potential. Can exclusivity in the market give a stronger position and increase profits to make a sufficient return on investment? All this makes patenting risky, irrespective of the technological content—it is a business decision first and foremost.
Companies see the opportunity in this investment and are happy to take the associated risks. But why does a university bother with patents at all and what are its aims in this ‘game’?
Universities are hubs of knowledge creation and today’s economy sees the value in that. As a result, research institutions intend to use and commercialise their know-how. And patenting is an essential part of that journey.
The ultimate goal and value of a patent remains the same, however, it serves a different purpose for universities. Patents enable them to legally protect their rights to inventions they helped nurture and claim financial compensation if the invention is lucrative. At the same time, patent protection allows the researchers to freely publish their results without jeopardising the commercial exploitation of the invention. It’s a win-win situation. Researchers can advance their careers, while the university can do its best to exploit the output of their work, bolster its social impact, and eventually reinvest the benefits into its core activity: research.
At what price?
Patenting may start at a few hundred or thousand euros, but the costs can easily accumulate to tens or even hundreds of thousands over the years. However, this investment carries more risk for universities than for companies.
Risks have two main sources. Firstly, universities’ financial capabilities are usually more limited when compared to those of businesses. Secondly, universities are not the direct sellers of the invention’s eventual final product. For that, they need to find their commercial counterpart, a company that sees the invention’s value and commercial potential.
This partner needs to be someone who is ready to invest in the product’s development. This is the technology transfer process, where the invention leaves the university and enters the industry. This is the greatest challenge for university inventions. Again, here the issue of time raises its head. The process of finding suitable commercial partners further shortens the effective period of market exclusivity.
A unique strategy is clearly needed here. Time and cost are top priorities. All potential inventions deserve a chance, but risks and potential losses need to be minimised. It is the knowledge transfer office’s duty to manage this.
We minimise risks and losses by finding (or trying to find) the sweet spot of time frames with a commercial partner, all while balancing commercial potential and realistic expectations. The answer boils down to: do we have enough time to take this to market and can we justify the cost?
Using cost-optimised patenting strategy, we can postpone the first big jump in the costs to two and a half years. After this point, the costs start increasing significantly. The rule of thumb is that about five years into a patent’s lifetime the likelihood of licensing drops to a minimum. So on a practical level, a university invention needs to be commercialised very quickly.
Maintaining a patent beyond these initial years can become unfeasible, because even the most excellent research doesn’t justify the high patenting costs if the product is not wanted by industry. And the same applies for all inventions. Even in the health sector, despite product development cycles being longer, if a product isn’t picked up patents can be a huge waste of money.
Patenting is a critical tool for research commercialisation. And universities should protect inventions and find the resources to file patent applications. However, the opportunities’ limited lifetime cannot be ignored. A university cannot fall into the trap of turning an interesting opportunity into a black hole of slowly expiring hopes. It must be diligent and level-headed, always keeping an ear on the ground for the golden goose that will make it all worth it.
A staggering amount of diseases can be traced back to a genetic cause. Dr Rosienne Farrugia talks to THINK about her team’s efforts to use genome sequencing to eventually secure timely treatment for some very serious conditions.
Food is one of life’s constants. Yet, what we eat has major ramifications on global climate. Food production uses up major resources: it accounts for more than 70% of total freshwater use, over one-third of land use, and accounts for just shy of 25% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, of which 80% is livestock. Yes, that steak you just ate has had a direct impact on the world’s climate! There is something of an oxymoron in the world’s food ecosystems. Overconsumption is linked to major health problems like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers that together account for up to 71% of global deaths. On the other hand, there are around one billion people in the world who suffer from hunger and underconsumption. All of this is compounded by problems of food loss and waste. This raises important questions related to the ethics of worldwide food production and distribution.
Food production and consumption is determined by many factors: population numbers, incomes, globalisation, sex (biology), and gender (socio-cultural) differences. The combination of a sedentary lifestyle and an unbalanced diet, high in red, processed meat, low in fruits and vegetables, is a common problem in many developed countries. And this impacts not just human health, but also biodiversity and ecosystems.
Supervised by Prof Simone Borg, I chose an exploratory research design with embedded case studies. The aim was to analyse the dietary patterns of men and women. I wanted to critically question the power relations that feed into socio-economic inequities and lead to particular food choices. I used both quantitative and qualitative methods, modelling the life cycle assessment and scenario emission projections for 2050 in Malta, Brazil, Australia, India, and Zambia among males and females aged 16 to 64.
The four dietary scenarios I took into consideration were present-day consumption patterns (referring to the 2005/7 Food and Agriculture reference scenario), the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended diet (300g of meat per week and five portions per day of fruit and veg), vegetarian/mediterranean/pescatarian diets, and the vegan diet. From there, I measured ammonia emissions, land use, and water from cradle to farm gate, with a special focus on gender.
The findings were alarming, indicating that none of the five countries are able to meet emissions reductions under current dietary patterns. If we were to adopt the WHO recommended diet, GHGEs would be cut by 31.2%. A better result would be gained from a vegetarian diet, which would slash emissions by 66%, while a vegan diet comes out on top with a projected 74% reduction.
Some interesting points that arose were that the Global Warming Potential is higher in men in all countries due to higher meat consumption. Zambia and India would benefit the most from the proposed dietary shifts in absolute terms, while Australia, Malta, and Brazil would feel the positive impacts on individual levels in per capita terms, reducing carbon footprints considerably.
Reduced meat consumption substantially lowers dietary GHG emissions. We need to prospectively consider the interplay of sex and gender, and develop climate change, health, and microeconomic policies for effective intervention and sustainable diets. Adopting a flexitarian diet that is mostly fruits and vegetables, with the occasional consumption of meat, can save lives, the planet, and economies—some food for thought!
This research was carried out as part of a Master of Science (Research) in Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, University of Malta.
The European Union’s success relies on positive relationships—cooperation and good will is key. The EU’s Development and Cooperation Policy exists to support these connections. Its focus is on external relations, establishing partnerships with developing countries and channelling billions of euros to them every year. The European Commission plays a crucial role in this regard, managing and implementing directives on behalf of the EU. But what do we really know about the effectiveness of EU aid in helping citizens in developing countries? And how far is female empowerment part of this agenda?
In short—we don’t know much!
Research in this area is scarce, and this is what prompted me to tackle this question myself, under the supervision of Dr Stefano Moncada. My specific focus was on assessing whether the EU is committed to gender equality and female empowerment, taking Afghanistan as a case study. I reviewed all the available aid programming documents from the last financial period, and assessed whether the EU was effectively supporting Afghanistan to achieve the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of gender equality. I adopted a mixed-method approach, using content analysis and descriptive statistics. Basically, this meant coming up with a very long list of keywords related to gender, and checking how many times these words appeared in the policy documents. Whoever invented the ‘ctrl + F’ function saved my academic life!
The results of my research were pretty surprising. I found that the EU is now focusing much more on gender empowerment on the ground in Afghanistan than it did a few years ago.
According to my data, and when comparing this to previous studies, it appears that the EU’s commitment to supporting this goal is growing over time. However, I also found that there is substantial room for improvement, as the attention given to such issues is rather conservative, and not equally balanced across all the SDG targets. For example, the need to increase women’s employment is mentioned many more times than the need to support female education or political participation. This is surprising as education is key to many other improvements in wellbeing. Nevertheless, I believe the overall results are encouraging and important, not only to highlight improvements in the effectiveness of the EU’s development and cooperation policy, but also in reply to a growing sentiment that puts into question the EU’s capacity to manage, and lead, in key policy areas. We can only hope that this continues exponentially.
This research was carried out as part of a Bachelor of European Studies (Honours) at the Institute for European Studies, University of Malta. The dissertation received the ‘2018 Best Dissertation Award’.
You can’t watch Blue Planet and not feel a pang of guilt for the plastic straw in your drink. But what does it truly take to mobilise people and encourage more sustainable behaviour? Kirsty Callan talks to Dr Vincent Caruana.
We’re finally living in a world where environmentalism is a sexy topic. Everywhere you look, it’s vegan-this, plastic-free-that. And it’s wonderful. Public awareness of the impact we are having on our planet is on the rise, and yet, according to Eurostat, Malta still registered the European Union’s highest increase in carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in 2017.Researcher Dr Vincent Caruana (Centre for Environmental Education and Research, University of Malta [UM]), believes the crises we are facing can be summed up in one double challenge: the eradication of poverty and the preservation of the environment. By simplifying the issue, it is turned into a single problem rather than many overwhelming issues, highlighting the interconnectedness of the challenges we face, be they social, economic, or environmental.
Taking Nepal and Bangladesh as examples, both have suffered devastating floods. Some point to large-scale deforestation by logging companies and agricultural businesses, as well as locals using the forests’ resources. Some environmentalists point to the population and blame them, saying that the increasing use of the forest by locals places burdens on the region’s resources, suggesting that their activities are the current major source of environmental problems. But that creates a scenario where the victims of poverty are blamed for trying to alleviate their own poverty. Meanwhile, the reality is that the wealthiest one-fifth of humanity consumes so much more than the rest of the world, leaving the rest hungry.
Who is most to blame for these problems? International institutions such as the United Nations, national governments, transnational corporations, or consumers?
In his classes, Caruana runs his students through a similar thought experiment. Who is most to blame for these problems? International institutions such as the United Nations, national governments, transnational corporations, or consumers? Some argue that it is greedy transnational corporations, out to make a quick buck while ignoring environmental impacts. Some retort, saying that corporations are bound by economy to maximise profits. Others would point their fingers at the consumers who choose to buy from dirty companies instead of the most ethically sourced. ‘Of course, there is no correct answer,’ Caruana states. ‘There is no single solution. We need thousands of solutions working in parallel. Literally. The interconnectedness of it all requires both governments and civil society to commit time and effort.’
GETTING TO THE CRUX
Caruana’s doctoral research identifies the influences that lead people to engage in responsible sustainable behaviour and hones in on ways to sensitise and mobilise sustained civic action.
Caruana is quick to note that there are a plethora of barriers—social, economic, and political—which prevent people moving towards sustainability. What surprised him was that more personal barriers, such as frustration, hopelessness, and dealing with disappointments, also pose a problem. ‘This is a significant point, considering that environmental circles are oft en concerned with reaching out towards the unconverted rather than supporting the converted,’ he explains. In other words, we have to continue to motivate those who are already on the right path to ensure they don’t become demoralised.
Looking to understand how people can take control of processes that affect their lives, Caruana conducted four case studies. Among them were an intentional community in Malta and a Fair-Trade network in Egypt. ‘The power of case studies lies in their ability to reframe and critically challenge core beliefs that are now taken for granted, like how a municipality, church organisation, and a trade organisation ought to act,’ he says.
Caruana believes that education on sustainable development (ESD) lies at the heart of it all—and he is not alone. In 2015, representatives from 193 countries gathered in New York to sign off on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the opening ceremony of the summit, Ban Ki-moon referred to the the Agenda outlined as ‘a to-do list for people and planet’. One goal focuses on education, which includes the aim to ‘ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development by 2030.’
In Malta, ESD is established as a cross-curricular theme within the National Curriculum Framework. However, ‘in practice, it is still in the process of being concretely translated across schools and within subjects,’ Caruana notes. He also highlights the need for adults to be educated too, so that this cultural shift can truly happen; however, he is quick to follow up the notion with its own weakness. For years, adult ESD has remained ‘locked within ideologies which have caused many of our contemporary environmental problems.’ We need a complete overhaul of our outlook. Increased emphasis on recycling is a positive; however, what would be better is if we could reduce the amount of waste we are creating in the first place. This is but one example. ‘As long as ESD remains stuck within the same thinking that is creating the double challenge, there can be little progress,’ says Caruana.
CLEARING THE SLATE
Back in 2001, Caruana co-founded Malta’s Fair-Trade movement. ‘Faced with the continuous realisation of an unfair world trade system, and seeing first hand through my voluntary work how such a system creates poverty, my friends and I wanted to be proactive and part of a solution,’ he states. ‘The path forward was not chartered for us. We started off passionately, then with each step, we finally arrived to setting up a fair trade shop and an ongoing educational programme. Rather than complain, we have within us the power to create new solutions.’
This philosophy is at the core of what Caruana is doing now. ‘The current model needs to be challenged, and we do have the power within us to create new ways of thinking. We need a shift from thinking in terms of economic growth to growth in wellbeing,’ he says. Referring to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, Caruana says they had it right. ‘A country’s ability to develop more sustainably depends on the capacity of its people and institutions to understand complex environmental choices.’ We need real leaders, not token ones, who inspire, embrace and support citizens in their actions, and create new spaces for dialogue. ‘Both Civil Society Organisations and local institutions can be a positive force towards sustainable solutions at a local level.’
This mission is a beastly mountain. The reality is that there are major hurdles standing in the way of a paradigm shift that would see Malta’s people acting more sustainably. Beyond personal barriers, Caruana’s research reveals the vulnerability of local processes: ‘In Malta, a change in government results in a change in priorities (and support).’ Every five years, the system is shaken by an election that brings with it new agendas and philosophies. ‘Stability in environmental issues and processes is essential,’ he notes. Caruana also points out the fragility of civil societies’ human resources.
The solution, Caruana suggests, is ‘to create stronger links between governments, politicians, organisations, and citizens, both for research and to build a network of adult educators.’ This was highlighted in his Fair Trade case study where success was highly dependent on the level and consistency of engagement at both a local level with producers and with their partners in the west.
It is clear that good leadership is key. To help address this issue, he has created an Erasmus+ project called PEERMENT with the aim of coming up with a new model of mentoring and peer-mentoring for ESD. It involves about 20 education specialists as teacher trainers and senior mentors and about 50 teacher mentees.
‘We have to invest in leadership,’ says Caruana. ‘We need to focus on social learning and empowering institutions and organisations to work together and become innovative co-creators of new ways of thinking. In an ever-changing world, this is a challenge for educators to embrace with passion and urgency.’
Circling back to the double challenge, it is clear that no one project will be able to comprehensively solve the issues we are facing as a global society. But ‘we have to stop waiting for permission,’ says Caruana. ‘The beauty of the emerging paradigm lies in the reality that we don’t need permission to change outmoded mind-sets that no longer serve us.’ And this will be crucial in the road ahead.
What would you do if you were stripped of your words? If speech simply didn’t come to you? Sylvan Abela writes about MaltAAC, an Augmentative and Alternative Communication App for the Maltese Language.
A scientist and a linguist board a helicopter, and the scientist says to the linguist, ‘What is the cornerstone of civilisation, science or language?’ It might sound like the opening line of a joke, but it’s actually from the opening sequence of the film Arrival (2016). In the film, aliens have landed on our doorstep, and our scientist and linguist have been chosen as suitable emissaries to establish contact. The scientist, perhaps wishing to size up his new colleague, then poses the question. Whose field has been more important to the advancement of the human race? Science or language?
In reality, they are both wrong (or both half-right). It is true that language was necessary for us to organise as a species, forming complex networks of cooperation over vast distances and time. Without specialising our efforts and collaborating, we could not have built our great structures, supported large communities, or migrated over all continents. Yet, without science, without improving our understanding of the natural world, we would still be at its mercy.
Science is the tool we use to change circumstance. When populations are dying from an infectious disease, we create a vaccine. When we’re unable to grow enough food to support ourselves, we develop a better strain of crop. When we struggle to transport materials over great distances, we create machines that will do it for us. Science is our secret weapon, transforming problems into possibilities. However, science alone means little. If innovation dies with its creator, who does it help? Science must be communicated to others before it can make a difference in any meaningful way.
It would be incomplete to bestow language or science with the title of ‘the cornerstone of civilisation.’ It was science communication that really drove our development. And I don’t just mean this in the external sense. After all, is the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next not science communication? What are we but a biological game of Chinese Whispers, the message mutating through each host but somehow continuing to make sense over millions of years?
The human race not only benefits greatly from science communication; we are the product of it. It is embedded into our biological and cultural history. Proof that it is not just knowledge but the sharing of knowledge that is the real root of power.
Over the last decade, workaholics have been glorified as the epitome of success. Problem behaviour is increasingly framed as ‘interesting’ and ‘quirky’ by certain media. But as mental health and well-being capture public attention,Cassi Camillerispeaks toProf. Carmel Cefaiabout his efforts to promote social and emotional learning for children and young people—skills for a lifetime.
Life is life, they say. Trial and error. You live and learn.
But how many times have you been frustrated with yourself because you ‘never learn’ from your mistakes?
How many times have you found yourself in a rough spot because deadlines are a dime a dozen and your to-do list is insurmountable? Your phone is ringing off the hook. All the people you have been ignoring are sending angry emails. You have not slept properly in days. All the while, you continue to dig your heels in, creating more issues with the people around you because you are so overwhelmed you cannot communicate like a decent human being. You are 40. Still think learning from experience is the only way you can go about this?
Human beings love patterns, routines. We love repeating what works. We also tend to repeat what doesn’t though, because change is hard. But solutions exist. At the University of Malta (UM), Prof. Carmel Cefai (Faculty for Social Wellbeing), is hard at work pushing for social and emotional education (SEE) to be promoted and strengthened at all levels in Malta and Gozo.
His appreciation for the importance of relationships and addressing students’ emotional needs in learning started over 40 years ago when Cefai was working as a primary school teacher. ‘Getting to know the students individually, what they like, what makes them tick, providing individual attention according to their needs, was an important part of the teaching process. When I was teaching at Qormi, on Monday mornings my students and I would talk about horse racing—which horse won which race that weekend? I learnt many of the horses’ names even if I wasn’t that interested in horse racing. But then during the week we ended up using horses as examples during class. It was a good and easy way to engage students.’
Cefai agrees that while overprotecting young people is counterproductive, students should have the skills to make informed choices, avoid taking too many unsubstantiated risks, and make some but not too many mistakes. ‘We do not need to experience highly stressful, painful, or traumatic experiences to learn or grow. The process of growth does not require that we become dependent on alcohol or drugs, engage in criminal behaviour, contemplate suicide or struggle with depression.’ Playing devil’s advocate, I say that such experiences provide their own brand of wisdom, but Cefai quickly retorts that whatever the takeaway may be, even if it is a positive: ‘the price paid is much too high.’
Where do we begin?
The majority of western culture, including Maltese, has a very particular problem when it comes to education—the whole process is vehemently geared towards academic achievement. There is a pervasive obsession with tests and grades. So the first thing we need to do, states Cefai, is move away from that. ‘Education is not just preparation for work. It’s also about the integration of cognitive, social, and emotional processes that make us human. If we provide an education based only on academic achievement, we will be shortchanging our children and depriving them from a good, quality preparation for adulthood,’ he says—the whole aim of education.
Rather than what kind of jobs people do, or what successful businesses need, as educators we need to ask: what kind of life would this child or young person be happy living?
SEE is the process by which an individual develops social and emotional competence through curricular, relational, and contextual approaches, skills that can be used for personal, social, and academic development. The concept already has a proven track record, Cefai notes. Where successfully implemented, SEE ‘has already brought about a paradigm shift in education, […] transforming it into a more meaningful, relevant, and humane process.’
Malta has come a long way already over the last few decades. Cefai remembers when, as a primary school teacher, he had tried to support a young school child with mental health difficulties who was not only ridiculed and bullied by the other children, but also shunned by adults because of his ‘odd’ behaviour. ‘The boy clearly needed help from specialised professionals,’ notes Cefai. ‘But he also needed to attend school and learn with people his age. The alternative was to stay at home, which he inevitably did because he was often absent.’ Thankfully, things worked out in the end. ‘With the help of the head of school and some professionals, we managed to make some inroads and his behaviour started to improve. But I remember back then struggling with lack of professionals, fragmented services, and rampant stigmatisation.’
The situation has continued to improve since then. Cefai promptly lists the good practices which are already in place. ‘We have Personal, Social, and Careers Education which has been in schools for years now. There have been various national initiatives promoting students’ well-being, all working to prevent school bullying and violence, early school leaving and absenteeism, as well as to promote inclusion in all shapes and forms. Many colleges and schools have also been engaged in various initiatives to promote social and emotional learning, such as Circle Time, Restorative Justice and Resilience building.’
Children’s development can be badly affected if their social and emotional well-being is not adequately addressed, says Cefai. This gap in emotional learning allows for educational systems to be driven primarily by market economy needs. Rather than what kind of jobs people do, or what successful businesses need, as educators we need to ask: what kind of life would this child or young person be happy living? The market-driven approach is focused on performance, individualism and competition, with little time and space for collaboration, sharing, compassion, and solidarity. Sadly, this situation is seen all too often.
So, how do we fix this? How do we make SEE a priority? Cefai immediately runs off a list of to-do’s. ‘We need to give social and emotional education more space and time in our schools. We need to invest more in teachers, giving them better training, and supporting them in taking care of their own health and well-being,’ Cefai emphasises. ‘Only when teachers take care of themselves and their well-being can they really create healthy, caring classroom environments where people build healthy relationships. It’s only then that they can respond effectively to students’ needs and become good role models.’ We also need to put more effort into the early years, when the building blocks of mental health and well-being are laid. We need to encourage schools to take a more holistic approach, to give students a stronger voice, to encourage parents to take a more active, participative role in their children’s education.
Of course this is not all achieved at the snap of our fingers. Resistance is to be expected, nods Cefai. ‘In order for SEE to work, there needs to be good quality planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. We know of state-of-the-art programmes which failed to make an impact as they were not implemented well, such as the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) in the UK which was eventually withdrawn because of lack of effect.’ Looking into reports about SEAL, ‘a superficial approach to implementation (‘box ticking’)’ was one of the main reasons the program failed.
Cefai also says that we need to be careful at all stages to avoid hijacking agendas. ‘Social and emotional learning should always be centred on children and young people’s needs. Their own and others’ well-being. We need to ensure that SEE retains focus on the people it is meant to help, recognising individual differences, while avoiding labelling and pathologising children and young people. SEE is about mental health promotion and well-being and prevention, rather than on deficiencies, deficits, and illness.Another issue is not to let SEE be taken over by the neo-liberal ’business model’ to fuel the market and global economy, where social and emotional skills are simply used to leverage productivity.’ Despite all this, the case for SEE remains tremendously strong.
There are no losers here
A success story in SEE implementation is a success story for everyone. Reams of evidence through studies can be found touting SEE’s praises. The approach enhances prosocial behaviour and mental health and well-being. It enhances academic achievement and prevents problem behaviours such as delinquency, anxiety, and depression. Such social issues cost taxpayers money to handle, mitigate, and fix. So much so, that the costs involved in setting up SEE are guaranteed to be not only returned, but exceeded. Some studies report that for every €1 invested, €11 will be returned to the economy in various shapes and forms.
‘I have been involved in various SEE and resilience projects in schools both in Malta and abroad,’ says Cefai. ‘I have always been very encouraged by the interest, enthusiasm, and collaboration of students, school staff, and parents. Staff and parents have been resistant at times, thinking it will take precious time from academic learning, until they realise that our approach actually enhances it. They may think that SEE is about mental illness, until they they realise that is about health and well-being and learning all rolled into one. Children really like to learn in this way, finding it enjoyable, meaningful, and useful, while teachers reap the satisfaction of seeing their students excel, improving their own lives through their contribution.’
So much of our lives are determined by our beliefs and perceptions. Learning how to process events and information in an effective way can make all the difference in how sequences of events unravel. That violent knee-jerk reaction, that long-standing bitter belief about ‘how the world works’; in difficult times, these thoughts can lead anyone down a long, dark path that’s very difficult to come back from. Social and emotional education that teaches young ones to listen to themselves and respect their feelings, as well as those of others, could begin to change that.
In a world where we are bombarded by stimuli every waking moment, it is not hard to imagine that we need to take the time to look inward and listen—our children depend on it.
Prof. Cefai has recently published three major publications in this area: An EU commissioned report on the integration of social and emotional education in the curriculum, an edited book on the promotion of mental health in schools and another edited book on the child and adolescent well-being and prevention of school violence.
Cefai, Carmel, and Paul Cooper. Mental Health Promotion in Schools: Cross-Cultural Narratives and Perspectives. Sense Publishers, 2017.
Cefai, C. et al (2018) Strengthening Social and Emotional Education across the Curriculum in the EU.Review of the international evidence. Luxembourg: Office of the European Commission.
While speech development starts early in life, the course of acquiring and processing language in a bilingual country like Malta is challenging. Engineers and language experts at the University of Malta have teamed up to build a toy that will help children overcome that hurdle. Words by Emanuel Balzan.
Toys and play are critical in children’s lives. It is through play that children learn how to interact with their environment and other people while developing their cognitive, speech, language, and physical skills.
The way children play reveals many things including whether or not they are hitting particular development milestones. Play is also used by professionals who intervene when those skills are not acquired. Speech and language pathologists (SLP) use toys to tailor tasks based on their objectives for the child, determined following their assessment. For this reason, toys are vital tools.
With technology moving at the rate it is, electronic components are easier and cheaper to access. As a result, a lot of smart, educational toys are now available on the market. However, Dr Ing. Philip Farrugia (Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, UM) honed in on a gap in the market—a smart toy that supports English and Maltese.
To make this happen, Farrugia recruited a team of researchers from the university. Engineers Prof. Simon Fabri and Dr Owen Casha joined the effort. Researchers Prof. Helen Grech and Dr Daniela Gatt brought their expertise in speech and language acquisition and disorders. The team was finally complete when game development company Flying Squirrel Games stepped into the picture.
Getting down to business
The SPEECHIE project is divided into three stages. During the first phase, we sought to understand the process of speech and language acquisition, assessment, and therapy. We involved users through workshops that allowed us to observe children’s play and their toy preferences. We also conducted focus groups with parents to identify what they most wanted from toys. During these sessions, one parent noted how ‘there are not any [educational] toys in Maltese our little ones can play and interact with.’ Others agreed with this observation. Parents also raised concerns about children’s attraction to tablets and smartphones, noting how they interfered with social interaction. On the tail end of this discussion, one parent quickly added that ‘the toy must have something to make it feel like a toy and not a gadget.’
With further questioning, we also came to realise that different parents have different criteria when deciding to buy a toy. One parent told us that before buying a toy for her daughter, she would ‘try to see for how long she will play with it and what the toy will give her in return.’ Another parent, concerned about toys’ safety, checks for the CE mark (Conformité Européene) prior to purchasing the toy, saying that he associates the mark with better quality. However, he also confessed that ‘in the hands of children, nothing remains of quality. Give them something which is unbreakable and they will manage to break it in one way or another.’
Since our toy is intended for use in speech therapy, we went ahead and organised more focus groups with SLPs. Outlining the role of toys in their clinics, SLPs said ‘[they] are normally used as a reward. If you know that this child likes blocks, then you use them to motivate the child.’ Toys are also used as part of the language tasks SLPs give. ‘We use objects to put a grammatical structure in a sentence. Many times you find something that represents a noun, a verb, an object and then put them together’ to model the appropriate sentence construction. This prolific use of toys, however, brings with it a very practical problem. One SLP explained how challenging things can get on a day-to-day basis due to the lack of multipurpose toys. ‘We are always carrying toys… we are always carrying things around with us. Even our cars… it is like I have ten kids,’ she said.
To address this issue, SLPs emphasised how useful it would be to have a flexible toy with multiple functions. One that does not bore children and which they can use to target different speech and language therapy goals. They also drew our attention to a prevalent but damaging mentality that they are trying to address. ‘Unfortunately, the majority of Maltese parents have a mentality that the more money they spend and the more therapy sessions for their children, the sooner the problem is alleviated, but in reality this is not true. The work needs to continue at home on a daily basis. It is not solely our responsibility,’ the SLP said. Much like when we practice daily to learn to play an instrument, speech and language therapy works the same way.
Sharon Borg, an experienced occupational therapist from the government’sAccess to Communication and Technology Unit, said that the toy we had in mind could provide a simple way for parents to engage with their children and work at home on related exercises. Borg’s colleague, Ms May Agius, also noted the need for the toy to offer ‘surprises’, saying that ‘anticipation and elements of surprise draw kids and keep them engaged.’
Here we have only touched the surface of all the ideas brought forth. However, by considering the children’s, therapists’, and parents’ needs early in the engineering design process, we should be able to reduce the number of design iterations we have in future.
Design is key. Based on the feedback from the focus groups, we have now started working on the hardware and the software. But the journey is not straightforward. One issue we needed to deal with was the lack of compatibility between the 3D modelling software Flying Squirrel Games used and the technology used by the UM. From an academic point of view, because of the innovative nature of the toy we are making, we needed flexibility, so we modified Flying Squirrel’s virtual model to add different mechanisms which involve moving parts. These alterations now allow us to create support to fix electronic components within the device and ensure that no moving part is impeded by another part. As a result, assembly is much easier.
We have also made the decision to build SPEECHIE software using modular blocks. This will enable us to switch parts and functions around so we can widen the idea of who might enjoy our product. The toy will not only be of use to children with speech and language impairments, but also to others. This approach was inspired by a meeting with behavioural economist Dr Marie Briguglio who warned us that labelling the toy could be stigmatising. She explained that it should not become ‘an isolated toy which kind of becomes a label: because I have this toy, that means I have speech impairment.’
Despite the aversion some parents felt towards technological devices, as said during focus groups, Borg also encouraged us not to shy away from using them. She said children with autism responded very well to technology, and therapists will make the best choice for the child to improve their skills. To hit a sweet spot in between these views, we are incorporating functions that will allow for a kinesthetic learning experience that involves physical activities rather than passive consumption of instructions. We want to mix different modes of play to encourage effective learning. We do not want kids to sit and watch their toy, but to move around, dance, and sing with other children.
With all of these choices under our belt, we now have a working prototype. But the SPEECHIE toy is not yet complete. In fact, the coming months will see us working on the mechanisms and the interfacing of electronics.
Towards the end of the year, we will start putting the toy into preschoolers’ hands to determine its effectiveness and efficiency in regard to speech and language therapy. To do this, we will compare the progress of children who use SPEECHIE with those who only use traditional SLP methods.
What we hope is that this toy will encourage parent-and-child interaction through play. We want to enable more frequent use of both Maltese and English and allow children to be safely exposed to technology and to a fantastic learning experience—all while having a ball.
Note: We are excited to share these insights about SPEECHIE with the public, and if you would be interested in joining on this journey by participating in the evaluations, get in touch here: firstname.lastname@example.org