Setting the scene for an open and engaging approach to tech education

Guest blog: Jill Hodges, Founder of Fire Tech - providers of creative tech education courses for kids - gives her take on closing the UK's tech skills gap
31st July 2017

There’s a lot of talk about the skills shortage in the UK at the moment, and rightly so. According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 43% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) vacancies are proving difficult to fill. If the UK is to hold on to its position as the digital capital of Europe it is vital that we produce enough graduates with the right skills to meet demand.

“Putting coding on the school curriculum is a serious step forward and puts us ahead of many of our European neighbours”

 

 A lot of great opportunities exist for those with a strong STEM education – especially in the South West – and given the UK’s proud heritage in this area these are careers that young people should be aspiring to. But getting young people interested in STEM subjects is still proving to be an obstacle.

While the UK is making some big strides – putting coding on the school curriculum is a serious step forward and puts us ahead of many of our European neighbours – there is still more to be done. In many STEM areas, particularly Engineering, the gender balance is completely out of kilter, and it’s not good enough. In order to thrive, the UK needs a tech industry that is as diverse as the country itself is. And in order to be representative, we need to do more to retain girls’ interest in the subject.

“Educators know that by setting a tone of respect and equal air time, quieter voices (of any gender) will be able to be heard”

 

Teaching kids about a subject is all well and good – but actually making it interesting and inspiring is a completely different challenge. Lessons need to be interactive, and it is important that children are actually able to get their hands on the circuit boards, computers and so on so they can realise just how creative a subject technology is. But even more important than this is that the environment in which they learn should provide freedom for all of them to express themselves – whatever their gender.

The difference between the way boys and girls behave and learn is well-documented, with boys often competing to be the first to ask or answer a question while many girls can be more reserved. The result is a situation where boys sometimes dominate and get more attention from teachers and fellow pupils, while girls can become more withdrawn and lose interest. This is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

So what is the answer? Well, the tone is set from the top. Educators know that by setting a tone of respect and equal air time, quieter voices (of any gender) will be able to be heard. Having a better teacher-student ratio helps, as will making sure there is a good mix of individual projects and group work, with groups mixed up as often as possible. Teachers also need to be comfortable with the fact that they may not know everything, and that they will need to encourage pupils to find the answers for themselves in many cases.

“We can empower young people with technology from an early age, both inside and outside of the classroom”

 

But we also need to think outside of the classroom. Learning doesn’t just happen at school and parents should be talking to their children about all the ways that technology all the opportunities to be creative with it. We can’t just be content with letting our kids play on our smartphones and tablets, we should be challenging them to think about how the masses of technology they encounter every day works.

Technology is a broad church – while some young people love the nuts and bolts of writing elegant code, others can find their groove focusing on how a user experiences a website or app. To find out where each individual’s passion lies, we need to give them a chance to try as many different things as possible. The last thing we need is for capable students to be put off the whole subject area before these talents are unearthed.

When it comes to learning about technology, everyone needs to have a chance to express themselves, no matter who they are or where they are from, and no matter how they choose to do it.

We can empower young people with technology from an early age, both inside and outside of the classroom, but we need to make sure that it is engaging, meaningful and exciting, and not presented in way that puts talented youngsters off for life. And while making sure that every voice is heard is important, we also need to make sure STEM teaching doesn’t just focus on the areas with which the teacher or parent is most familiar, but encourages creativity and the development of problem-solving skills.