Teen Tech Coventry
I am not a morning person. Waking up at 5.30am to get to the Ricoh Arena in time to set up our demos for Teen Tech was painful.
Despite feeling like zombies, we made it there only a little behind schedule and promptly began assembling our stall. There were five of us: me from R&D, Ulrich from BBC Academy, and James, John and Darren, three regional broadcast engineers based in Birmingham.
In case you’re not familiar with it, Teen Tech is the brainchild of Maggie Philbin and Chris Dodson, and attempts to inspire young people to consider careers in technology. It’s a bit like a careers fair - a large room in which companies set up stalls demoing interesting technology, and the school children move from stall to stall interacting with the demos and talking to the scientists and engineers behind them. Maggie led the day, conducting both the welcome session for the students and the debrief. She is a wonderful host and clearly incredibly passionate about Teen Tech – and its continuing success is a testament to this.
As always, our ‘invisibility cloak’ was an instant hit. With gradual prompting, most students were able to piece together how it worked – combining their knowledge of blue/green screens with the fact that the camera was surrounded by blue LEDs and the fact that there was something special about the cloak material – it is retroreflective cloth. Highlighting the fact that being a scientist is about finding out how ‘magic’ really works seemed to capture their imagination.
We also brought along a speaker which emits waves at an inaudible frequency that bounce off surfaces and reconstruct into audible sound waves through interference. This has the effect that the sound appears to be coming out of whatever surface you point the speaker at. Of course, endless amusement was had pointing it at the other side of the room, playing a ringtone and watching confused engineers search around fruitlessly for the ringing phone.
We also demoed our virtual steadicam, an audio production app, and a remote controlled sound desk – even I was a little taken aback to see the physical faders moving unassisted – all controlled with an app on a tablet. Other stalls included Raspberry Pis, paper-plane making challenges, Scalextric race tracks and even an actual robot. I wish I had been able to attend such an event while I was at school, it really brought to life the diversity of careers available in science and technology.
The students had been told they could ask us anything, and they took this literally. As well as being asked about what I studied and what my job involved, I was asked where I last went on holiday, and if I’d had Botox (decided to take this as a compliment – clearly they meant I had a youthful complexion!). A particularly surreal moment was when a thirteen year old girl looked wistfully at my pink hair and said ‘I used to have hair that colour’ as if reminiscing over a misspent youth.
At the welcome session (before they were let loose to roam the stalls), the students were asked a few initial questions such as ‘how interested are you in becoming an engineer?’, and were also asked to draw a scientist. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority drew men in white coats with crazy hair and big glasses. I’m sure I’d have done the same. But the aim of the day is to break down these stereotypes and show the students that real scientists and engineers come in all shapes and sizes and do all kinds of interesting work. While it is undoubtedly successful in this (the students we spoke to were often surprised both at the fact that we were engineers and at the work we did), I was a little disappointed to see so few female scientists and engineers behind the stalls. Some female students said they had difficulty finding realistic role models and cited Amy Farrah Fowler as an example of how technical women are often portrayed as geeky and socially inept. It is so important that these young people have aspirational female role models, so let’s hope that female representation at outreach events like this will continue to improve.
Nevertheless, it was clear that by the end of the day the students’ perceptions had changed for the better. Many more said they would be interested in becoming scientists and engineers, and perhaps most interestingly the overwhelming majority rated scientists and engineers as being ‘clever, interesting and well-paid’. I’ll leave you to decide whether or not you would agree on that one!