The next innovation generation

Maggie Philbin OBE writes about working with young people, parents and teachers to ensure that the younger generation have every opportunity to take advantage of the next wave of transformative technology.

Ten years ago, I sat down with a class of twelve-year-olds and asked them to name anyone working in science, technology or engineering. The only name that rolled off the tongue was Einstein, with the exception of one boy who suggested, “Charles Cabbage?” This experience gave us the impetus to build TeenTech – a collaborative organisation helping young people, parents and teachers to understand the opportunities in tomorrow’s world, and the skills needed to take advantage of them.

There has been much hand wringing over how to help everyone gain the skills needed for a fast-moving digital future: one that is truly diverse, built and developed by, and for, the whole community – not just the fortunate few. A future which for the most part is shrouded and unpredictable for ‘experts’, let alone students, parents and teachers.

We live in a time of opportunity where AI, robotics, biotechnology and big data have the potential to transform everything – from health to transport, food to entertainment; it’s never been easier to take a great idea to market. But it’s also a time when we need to work swiftly and coherently to ensure that all of society benefits.

Young people need access to experiences that help them feel they might belong and enjoy working in emerging technology. They have to believe in their potential and crucially, appreciate that of others. Young people also need digital ‘capital’ to thrive – skills, contacts, evidence of interests they can share with future employers or educators.

TeenTech’s founding principle is to challenge anyone and everyone who thinks a career in modern industry is ‘not for them’. We want young people to understand that working in tech is an option open to all, regardless of social background, gender or disability and the majority of our work takes place in areas of greater social need.

It is as true today as when I worked on ‘Tomorrow’s World’, that while some predictions will come to fruition, many more will be wide of the mark and the ones which will prove to begame-changers are not yet on our radar. However, what is unquestionably within our control is the ability to inspire, support and mobilise the diverse talent we need to succeed, whatever the future holds.

It’s a big job and I believe the only way to scale impact is by providing more space for students to develop industry relevant skills within a currently crowded, examination-based curriculum.

As Chair of the UK Digital Skills Taskforce I know there is an appetite from teachers and industry for more project based, cross-curricular learning, which embodies and recognises creativity, problem solving, collaboration, entrepreneurship and self- directed learning. We are collecting evidence that this approach delivers well for students of all abilities, rather than one focused only on examining subjects formally in ‘siloes’.

TeenTech has worked directly with over 45,000 young people from 600 different schools and with 2,000 different companies. There’s been a huge amount of learning about the best ways to support young people, especially those with no previous interest in technology. For them it won’t be a decision of whether or not they work in tech: every job will be a digital job.

The annual awards we offer see over 2,000 students designing ideas to make life ‘better, simpler or easier’ using science, technology and engineering. The range and ambition is striking and increases motivation for exploring areas of technology young people might have dismissed as ‘not for them’ or not even been aware of. As students in Leicestershire told us, “Before this project, if you’d asked us what things like biofeedback and gaming platforms were, we would have stared blankly at you…this has definitely opened our horizons.”

One school in Greenock has seen a 300 per cent rise in the number of students choosing Design and Technology subjects since introducing the programme to their S2 students five years ago. A girls’ school, after working with us for three years, saw the uptake of Physics rise from 43 per cent to 87.5 per cent, as they could ‘see the point of the subject’.

The structure has been welcomed for the way it inspires all students and, as one librarian remarked, have proven an effective means of reaching young people who would otherwise not see themselves as fitting into the ‘STEM stereotype’.

Ongoing interventions are more powerful than one-off events, as we can, over time, help teachers, parents and the students themselves to recognise their own inherent strengths in areas such as creativity, leadership, attention to detail, tenacity, teamwork or communication. This is why I really urge people to think beyond parachuting into a school to deliver an ‘inspiring speech’. Try, at the very least, to make it a conversation. Teenagers we have spoken to about this approach described feeling like speakers were only interested in “talking about themselves without advising or helping me”, telling them “what the job involves but not how to get the job” and focusing too much on academic pathways. Encouragingly, our programmes have proven particularly successful with girls: 64 per cent of participants are female. It’s very important that they shine in mixed company. One of the male awards finalists candidly told us one of his biggest pieces of learning from TeenTech was seeing how “seriously good” girls are at tech. So hopefully he won’t ever sit in a company believing that the reason women aren’t engineers or rising to leadership positions is down to biology.