Raising enthusiasm for STEM

  • Raising enthusiasm for STEM

What does it take to nurture teenage innovation in an age where young people’s digital appetite is at an all-time high? Maggie Philbin, CEO of TeenTech, has a few ideas…

One of the most eye-catching statistics I read in the process of writing the Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World report was that 47% of jobs will disappear due to technology over the next ten years; but that for every job that disappears two will be created. Good news for those with the right skills and the right aptitude who can take advantage of the opportunity. But as we know, far too many will not be able to do this. The words ‘skills gap’ and ‘STEM’ are heard together all too often – whether in the media, boardroom or classroom. I’m hopeful the new computing curriculum will make a big difference over the long term. However, I still worry about sufficient context and also about those downstream, uninspired and unstretched by the former IT curriculum, with no idea of the rich openings offered by a world which is digital by default. Parents are very influential when it comes to choosing career pathways and offer well-meaning but often out of date advice based on misconceptions of fast changing industries. And companies themselves are not always the best at communicating the possibilities in the most effective way. So what can we all do to make sure young people profoundly understand they can play a part in the development of emerging technologies as well as in their consumption? We made a number of practical suggestions in our recent Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World report on what needs to be done to nurture home-grown talent so that it meet the needs of Britain’s modern economy. Our leading recommendation for government was the need to seriously invest in teachers – not only with the provision of good CPD but with funding to allow them time to take advantage of the opportunities. We suggested Government needs to invest at least an additional £20 million by 2020 to help successfully embed the new computing curriculum in schools in England. Current funding levels of £3.5m equate to just £175 per school. But there’s a lot schools, businesses, parents and students can do, too.

The value of connections

The most common feedback we get from students and teachers is how much young people enjoy the opportunity to create and show off their own real ideas. In particular, being able to get feedback directly from industry on their thinking. Industry is able to pick up on potential in a slightly different way – where a parent might be saying ‘You’d make a great lawyer’, they might say ‘You could think about digital marketing’. It’s important to help young people recognise the qualities they might already have which would suit them to particular areas of science or technology. Students can admire the CEO of a tech company who visits to give a talk but still feel his or her achievements are completely out of their reach. Encouraging the engineers and scientists who come into the classroom to talk about personal qualities they apply in their work – teamwork, attention to detail, excitement of winning a contract, helps students to understand how they might enjoy being part of their world. Near peers are influential; inviting apprentices and graduate trainees to visit can help to break breaks down that barrier of ‘but I couldn’t do that’. However, it is vital that these relationships are built for the long term and are not considered one-off interventions. This is especially crucial for the ones that are oblivious to their own potential and might take a bit longer to believe they could achieve the same height and become part of the future.

Creative freedom with industry feedback

On top of these connections, it’s also hugely important that we give our young innovators the creative autonomy to start exploring on their own and come up with their own solutions. Our TeenTech Awards were set up to give schoolchildren the right mix of industry collaboration and creative exploration, providing them with the freedom to carve out these connections, with our support, and simply work on ideas to make life easier and better through technology. One of our teams started out with an idea for “a car that changed colour according to your mood”. We connected them with an ambassador from the Transport Research Laboratory who worked with them, carefully suggesting areas they might want to investigate such as whether paint can change colour and what existing technology might help a car recognise your mood. The project won the ‘Future of Transport’ category and as the girls said ‘ it opened our eyes to all kinds of technology we didn’t even realised existed. It was a brilliant experience”. Teachers say this project-based work fires enthusiasm and also helps students, parents and indeed staff understand the potential of certain subjects. Future innovators need to see how these careers could be relevant to them, and what they need to do to get there – and hands on experiences supported by both educators and industry are vital in demonstrating this.

About the author

Maggie Philbin is CEO and co-founder of Teentech, which organises events to help young people realise the career potential of STEM subjects. The next annual TeenTech Awards will take place in summer 2015. To find your nearest TeenTech event, please visit www.teentech.com.