Filling the STEM gap with the Micro:bit

As more and more jobs centre around digital technology, and the 'internet of things' becomes less of a buzzword and more of a reality, the pressure is growing for the education system to ensure the next generation of employees are prepared for the developing demands of the workplace.

We blogged about 'Technology, the frenemy of tomorrow's workforce' back in November 2014, but in the last few weeks, one of our clients has been involved in a project to 3D print a steel bridge over one of Amsterdam’s famous canals using robots and Autodesk software. The software is a project in itself.

The project will see the robots working autonomously on-site in much the same way as human construction workers, with the aim being to demonstrate the applicability of the technology to larger structural projects. If successful, the project could radically transform the face of the construction industry, with robots becoming a regular feature on future building sites.

The software used to run the robots is just one example of how the future of making things is dependent on people having the necessary STEM skills to lead these innovations. This reminded us again of how important it is for generation Y to be engaged in technology in both a creative and stimulating way.

In June of this year, Cisco CEO and life science graduate Phil Smith told the Telegraph, "The internet of everything is going to change the world. We'll have pills that can monitor how the body is absorbing them and cars that know when it is going to rain. We'll see a sweep of digitisation throughout every aspect of life, which means that if you know how technology works you're going to find it much easier to understand almost any industry in the future."

There has been much in the media about how the UK education system is failing to encourage its students to engage with STEM subjects, and thus hindering not only their future employability but also the UK's ability to compete on a global stage. Thankfully, there have been a few projects initiated by corporations recently, such as Barclays' Code Playground, and 'Make it Digital', the latest idea from the BBC which will see pocket-sized computers called Micro:bits provided to millions of UK students aged between the ages of 11 and 12.

This is the BBC's most ambitious education initiative since the 1980s, when the BBC Micro introduced children to computing for the very first time, some of which have gone on to be pioneers of programming. Take, for example, David Darling, who started coding games at home on the Micro and now runs Kwalee, a smartphone game developer. Another, David Braben, co-developed Elite, a space trading computer game which has now evolved into the highly popular Elite: Dangerous. David Braben is also co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity founded in 2009 to promote basic computer science in schools.

In much the same way, the BBC Micro:bit will enable today’s students to code, customise and control, spark their creativity and allow them to bring their digital ideas to life. Students will be able to create something that gives instant gratification, whilst the computer has the potential to handle much greater complexity if students wish to develop their skills further.  Head of BBC Learning, Sinead Rocks explained in May, "There's no real way to tell you what it does - because that will be entirely dependent on how the children who get one choose to program it."

With a wide variety of features such as 25 red LEDs, an on-board motion detector, and Bluetooth Smart Technology, the Micro:bit is able to interact with its surroundings, such as phones, tablets, and cameras. It can be programmed from a computer, tablet or mobile phone via the BBC's soon-to-launch Micro:bit website.

Other tools in the Make It Digital scheme include the Technobabble "digital maker kit" which allows children to create their own computer games. The Make It Digital tour will also run throughout the summer, visiting 13 locations across the UK and providing opportunities to learn more about the digital world and coding.

We're excited to see how the Micro:bit and the Make it Digital initiative from the BBC will encourage the digital geniuses of the future, and hope the pocket-sized device lands in the hands of the next Justin Mateen (the inventor of Tinder), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Leah Busque (TaskRabbit).


Why the ‘ matters

A reader’s letter to my local newspaper caught my eye this week. It came from a 10-year old girl complaining about the incorrect use of an apostrophe in a headline.

Is this just a precocious schoolgirl pointing out a minor error, or does it highlight a deeper lesson for many grown-ups? I ask because just days earlier a senior engineer in a large company was telling me that with the prevalence of so-called text-speak, it doesn’t matter if a company’s communications contains the odd spelling or grammatical error – people will understand the meaning anyway.

But even if that is true, it misses the point. What kind of a professional image does a company convey if it has no eye for detail in its communications? Customers will (rightly) think the same attitude permeates all its operations. Such a lack of rigour can damage a business.

Great B2B marketing content is well-written and well-targeted. It addresses the customer’s needs. It educates and informs. It focuses laser-like on the customer, not on the company doing the marketing. And its meaning must be crystal clear, without errors.

Sometimes the young can teach valuable lessons to the more mature. Well spotted schoolgirl!

Oh and for some insight into how not to use apostrophes, there’s even a website devoted to the topic with hundreds of examples.


Technology, the frenemy of tomorrow's workforce

Technological change seems to occur at the speed of light. As one technical innovation develops, another is just beginning. It can be extremely difficult to keep up, even for those twenty-something millennials who seem to have the advantage on Generation X.

Yet as more and more jobs are absorbed by technology, young people are struggling to find employment. And if this is the case for Generation Y, what will the job market be like for Generation Z?

In a recent report by the World Economic Forum, persistent jobless growth was rated globally as the second highest concern. Larry Summers, former US treasury secretary, placed responsibility on the education sector to “meet the needs of this age.” He warned that if current trends continue then whole sections of society will find their standards of living going backwards.

Of course, it’s important to remember that doom and gloom shifts newspapers. While it’s inevitable that jobs will be lost to technology, this is not to say that new opportunities are not already cropping up in their place.

From manufacturing through to media, developments in technology are opening up a raft of new opportunities. Even the PR and marketing industry has seen a seismic change in job roles to keep pace with the exciting possibilities around social media.

Getting ready for work

The best safeguard against being replaced by technology is knowing how to use it. If we want today’s students to enjoy a brighter future, we need to make sure that they go into the workplace fully able to use technology to maximum effect.

Why not start implementing curriculums that prepare for certain roles, such as digital marketers, social media managers and software engineers. Why not include blogging in English lessons? What about robotic engineering in Design Technology? What about getting schools to start trading with one another? The possibilities to digitise the workforce of tomorrow are endless.

The UK’s Year of Code is one of many signs that reform has already started. Including a new initiative to train teachers in software coding, it’s hoped that the scheme will encourage these new skills within the classroom and, further down the line, technology entrepreneurship. In fact, the government has ordered that HTML coding become a compulsory topic covered for every child aged 5 – 16 years old.

There’s also a growing network of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), government-funded schools that teach students technical and scientific subjects, educating the inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians of tomorrow. Perhaps more schools should take a leaf out of their book.

In a study by Deloitte, 84% of London businesses said the skill set of their employees will need to adapt over the next decade. Expertise such as ‘digital know-how, ‘management’ and ‘creativity’ were most desirable. Indeed, at 634th in the list of careers most likely to be overtaken by technology we like to tell ourselves in the PR industry that we’ll be completely fine, at least for the foreseeable future.

The truth is that whether we’re young or old, the demands of today’s workplace mean we all need to keep up-to-date on how to make best use of the technological advancements of the 21st century.

What are your thoughts about technology and the job market? Are we prepared? What can we do to give children the best hope of a successful career in the future?