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Breaking Down Societal Barriers is Key to Boosting Kids’ Interest in Tech

Ross Kelly

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Societal Barriers in tech

DIGIT caught up with Tanya Howden and Myles Bax from Robotical to discuss the company’s work helping get kids into coding – and why we need to break down barriers to boost engagement.¬†

On National Coding Week all eyes are focused on how to build people’s confidence and skills in coding. In Scotland, digital skills is an area upon which great emphasis has been placed in recent years.

Last month’s SQA results paint a rather concerning picture for the nation’s burgeoning technology sector, with engagement in computing science falling at both Higher and National 5 level.

As the country strives to establish itself as the data capital of Europe and attract ever-more investment into the technology sector, one must consider where the future programmers, cybersecurity specialists and entrepreneurs will come from in the years ahead. Although Scotland’s schools and universities are playing a crucial role in developing the next generation of tech leaders, there is still much work to be done.

Speaking to DIGIT earlier this year, Professor Bill Buchanan, head of the Cyber Academy at Edinburgh University and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on computing science, insisted that Scotland must work harder to engage children in tech subjects and build a culture that places emphasis upon being tech leaders, rather than consumers.

Three months on, DIGIT caught up with the staff at Edinburgh-based firm, Robotical to discuss the issue of digital skills and the importance of coding. Learning experience designer Tanya Howden and Myles Bax, business development manager, work in the nitty-gritty of the firm’s day-to-day operations.

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Both believe that we shouldn’t lose sight of what can be achieved if Scotland inspires children to take-up coding at a young age. To inspire Scotland’s future techies, though, we must highlight that this is about more than just learning tech skills – these experiences have a far-reaching impact.

“Coding is so important, and as we keep moving forward into the future, technology is going to be a central part of our lives everywhere we go,” Howden says.

“The skills you get from coding aren’t just restricted to a tech-focused area either. Coding skills are important in all aspects of life, and problem-solving is a key part of it. Anything you do in your day-to-day routine is going to require some form of problem-solving so this is such a valuable skill.”

Robotical works with schools and community groups globally, helping to engage young people in coding through its flagship product Marty the Robot. Schools across the UK can even apply for a free robotics trial in the classroom.

Marty is a fully-programmable, WiFi-enabled robot, and has received a number of awards since its launch in 2017. Students can programme the robot to perform a range of different challenges such as walking, turning, posing, dancing and kicking a ball. The popularity of the miniature robot has led the firm to strike significant deals, with South Korean extracurricular group the Wise Club taking on a shipment last year.

Engagement, Inspiration and Perception

SQA results in August showed a 21% decrease in the number of students choosing to study computing science at a higher level. Similarly, a decrease at National 5 level highlights what could become a growing problem for Scotland; many young people are being switched off by certain STEM-related subjects.

A key talking point that regularly appears is the gender deficit across a range of STEM subjects. Young women and girls aren’t engaging with subjects, such as computing science or engineering, at the same level as their male counterparts.

This is an issue that Howden experiences first hand in her day-to-day work with Robotical. As part of her role at the Edinburgh company, Howden runs a series of coding clubs and regularly visits schools throughout Scotland. Often, she explains, girls are in the minority.

“It’s really sad when you go into a school and the girls say ‘oh can we play with the robots as well?’ because they’re young and at a critical age and should be made to feel that coding is for everyone – you don’t have to be or look a certain way to be a programmer,” Howden says.

“We need to get the message out there early enough and get girls going along to things such as coding clubs and engaging them in activities that are fun and interesting. If we can do that then maybe they’ll not have those doubts later on in life.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to solving uptake in computing science and solving gender deficits, one thing is for certain; a concerted push from government, academia and industry is required. Equally, challenging the status-quo of tech-based subjects will be critical to breaking down barriers.

For too long, Bax suggests, parochial views of STEM subjects – and which demographics should pursue careers in these fields – have stifled young people and narrowed their options in life.

“We still have a bit further to go in breaking down barriers and, often, there’s a perception of what is perhaps a valuable subject to study at university,” he says. “When Abertay University initially launched a computer games course, a lot of people turned their noses up and said ‘oh that’s not a real subject’.

“But, in fact, when you look at the people coming out of that course and others, they are doing very well and contributing greatly to the wider sector.”

Scotland isn’t alone in this battle, Bax insists. Countries around the world regularly find themselves faced with a perception gap of what is valuable in learning. This, he believes, is where Scotland can become a global leader and build a dynamic culture for young people to explore the possibilities of careers in technology.

Additionally, acknowledging that these are issues that affect more than just gender deficits will be key. Children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, male or female, can be restricted due to antiquated perceptions, Bax asserts. This is where Scotland’s technology sector can play a critical role to inspire young people.

“We talk a lot about the growing technology sector in Scotland, but sometimes that can appear out of reach for young people,” he says. “On some occasions, this exciting entrepreneurial scene could maybe be accused of coming across as quite middle class, perhaps, and seemingly out of reach for a lot of people.

“That’s not to say it absolutely is. However, if we can help change perceptions then that will go a long way to helping people.

“Kids are very impressionable and begin to get ideas of what’s for and what’s not for them. By reaching out and demonstrating that these subjects are fun and a good opportunity, then that’s a really important message and could help spark those ideas and aspirations.”

Robotical has experience in this area. Last month, the firm announced a partnership with Heart of Midlothian FC to provide digital skills workshops as part of an initiative being run by the Hearts Innovation Centre.

The robotics club will see workshops and educational sessions aimed at inspiring kids from the local community to get into tech. This partnership, Bax asserts, underlines the impact that business can have upon engagement.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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