27 June 2011 2 Comments

The Mini Reith

Life is sometimes very surreal.

Aung-San-Suu-Kyi

Aung-San-Suu-Kyi

If you were listening to R4’s Broadcasting House, you’ll know that my name was used as code to protect the identity of pro-democracy leader  Aung San Suu Kyi who is delivering this year’s Reith Lectures. The lectures have run since 1948 and the BBC have recently made the archive of all 240 recordings available. They make for stimulating listening.

Broadcasting House invited me to give my own mini Reith lecture on Sunday morning.You can listen to it here.Mini-Reith Lecture – Who Wants To Be An Engineer? (mp3)

If you want to find out more about the events I’ve set up to help young people understand more about the real opportunities available in science and engineering have a look at the TeenTech website. And if you’d prefer to read the lecture, here it is :

Who wants to be an Engineer?

Four years ago I asked a class of thirteen year olds if they could name a contemporary scientist, engineer or technologist. The only name they came up with was Einstein. Except for one young boy who suggested  “Charles Cabbage?”

They weren’t proud of that ignorance. They went on to explain that though they enjoyed going to the Science Museum, the visits left them none the wiser about what modern scientists and in particular modern engineers actually did.

They don’t know, their parents don’t know and nor do their teachers.

It’s not surprising because I’m willing to bet that even if you’re a high flying engineer at Google you have only a hazy idea about what’s going on at BMW or Virgin trains.

When I was 13, I wanted to be a vet or a doctor because they were the only options visible to me. It’s been my years as a technology reporter, barrel rolling across the sky in a Hawker Hunker trying out the latest anti-G suit, watching the delicate mesh of a stent expand to clear a blocked artery or demonstrating an electric blanket that knew where your hot bits were  – it’s this which has helped me appreciate the kaleidoscopic technology landscape and the myriad career opportunities available at every level

Like most teenagers,  the ones I interviewed were fascinated by gadgets and one boy suggested it would be helpful to have information on the packaging to tell them more about the inventors and the challenges they’d overcome. After all, as he said, “ Even on adverts, we see footballers but we never see scientists”

This was the reason I’ve set up events where young people get to handle not only the world’s shiniest technology but most importantly meet the engineers who created it.

We cut through the clichés., teenagers can see for themselves that it’s possible to be an engineer and a woman or a scientist and have a decent haircut. As they work on their own designs for the ultimate snowboard or a mobile phone app they see why maths and physics are a passport to creativity and can help you develop very cool ideas.

Teen-Tech-2011-180

An ideas wall gives them the freedom to show off thoughts for the technology they’d like to see at the Olympic Games in 2050

“A drug that takes away all steroids and other drugs so no-one can cheat” suggested Samantha and Fraser,

Ben thought that the events could be made litter free if  “when packaging on food is removed, it’s drawn towards a bin using magnetic particles.

And Adam had a challenging thought “All ball events will be competed with an invisible ball, to make it harder”

The most valuable prizes are experiences. Last week 15 winners spent a day learning about the technology behind 3D cameras and cinemas. They then watched a 3D film. Whenever they watch films in the future it will be with completely different eyes

We talk endlessly about innovation but we have to do more to inspire teenagers with fresh accurate images of the contemporary workplace. The vast majority of jobs, even in the near future will be applications of science, technology, engineering and maths .

But at the moment a generation sit in chains, shackled to the false hope of instant success, and a magical belief that X factor, the lottery or marrying a footballer will transform their lives.

Steve Jobs says that innovation is just about joining the dots. It’s down to all of us to help young people understand how the right knowledge and the right skills will help them recognise those dots . And will give them the power to transform all our lives, not just their own.

2 Responses to “The Mini Reith”

  1. Colin Winslett 29 June 2011 at 4:51 am #

    Hi Maggie.
    Just wanted to say how inspiring I found your “mini-Reith lecture” on BH last Sunday. I stopped what I as doing, and at the end I applauded loudly (despite the fact that I was alone!). As an engineer I have been promoting it as a career to the teenage sons of a close friend and I will be sending the transcript of your lecture to them.

    Best regards
    Colin.

    • maggiephilbin 1 July 2011 at 9:45 pm #

      Many thanks Colin! When I was at school I didn’t have the faintest idea about careers in engineering. It’s gratifying to see how excited teenagers become when they realise what they could be doing….