They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that certainly holds true. But what about improving on the inventions that we already have? And what if you could do that and, at the same time, give children their first valuable experience of solving real-world challenges with technology?

It turns out that if you give existing technology to a group of eager schoolchildren and ask them to improve it, they come up with some great ideas. 

Thirteen-year-old Chloe, for instance, created an app-controlled wheelchair to improve users’ experiences. “As a wheelchair user, I know all the things that make you miss out, so we tried to get rid of as many of those as possible, using technology,” she said. 

Chloe’s brainstorming was just part of a week-long program of technology-inspired events under the auspices of Digital Explorers – an initiative by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) UK in partnership with the Engineering Development Trust (EDT).

Digital Explorers launched in 2017 as a sustained effort to encourage more secondary school students to choose STEM subjects and plug the UK’s costly IT skills gap. 

In partnership with the Engineering Development Trust, Digital Explorers is an effort to plug the UK’s IT skills gap. Source: Tata Consultancy Services

A hands-on approach

More than 750 students aged between 11 and 16 from schools in and around Bristol got to grips with encryption, AI and design engineering in the city’s Ashton Gate football stadium. 

Students were tasked with working in teams to crack a code, decipher secret instructions and transmit those messages in binary code using a kit-built torch.

They then moved on to the Ozobot challenge, in which students calibrated miniature robots to communicate in the language of colour, plotting a route for their Ozobot around various obstacles.

For the local schools, the Digital Explorers events plug the gap that schools themselves struggle to fill. 

“As a teacher, I pray for days like this,” said Matt Duke, head of computing at the small Cotswolds school Sir William Romney’s. “Cryptography fits well with our curriculum and there’s no way we could afford to buy our own robots.”

Simon Matthews, a teacher at Bristol’s Yate Academy, said the combination of sessions worked well: “We try to choose external events that fill a gap for us, take students out of their comfort zone, but which are engaging and give a window into a breadth of industry. This really works for us.”

Students programmed their Ozobot to communicate in the language of colour, and manoeuvre around an obstacle course. Source: Tata Consultancy Services

A lasting impact

What makes the event so effective is the hands-on help from those already working within STEM. 

More than 40 volunteers from TCS, as well as client companies and local partners from TCS and Diligenta, plus clients including Lloyds Banking Group, EDF Energy, Barclays and Jaguar Land Rover mentored the schoolchildren through a series of presentations and challenges.

This included events such as Meet a Mentor sessions, which gave youngsters free rein to quiz panels of professionals from leading science, tech and engineering companies.

“How did you get your job?”, “Who was your role model?” and, probingly, “What is the atmosphere like in your office?” were among questions fired from the floor. 

For those a little closer to making their career choices, there were workshops offering CV-building activities and job application practice – again mentored by volunteers. 

A rewarding day

The event was just as rewarding for the volunteers as it was for the children.

Sayantan Das from TCS says that it was a valuable experience seeing the technology through the eyes of tweens.

“Great to see some of the ‘not so confident’ kids coming out of their comfort zones to participate in the group activities with full rigor. The day was perfectly planned, starting with exposing the kids to simple coding techniques through to the point where they all came up with some of the brilliant ideas − how they want technology to simplify their lives in future.”

75% of the students involved in Digital Explorers say they are more open to a career in tech as a result. Source: Tata Consultancy Services.

For returning volunteer Clare Metcalf, a business engagement manager for client Lloyds Banking Group, seeing as many girls as boys at the events was especially satisfying: “It’s also an opportunity to showcase different routes into technology jobs and to excite young people about jobs they could end up doing that don’t even exist yet.”

Indeed, the students were keen to know how to make the most of their future job applications, noted Sarah Hannis, Education & STEM Manager, Strategy & Corporate Affairs at EDF: “What a great and fun day! Digital Explorers and the TCS volunteers make the most of highlighting the ‘T’ in STEM and showing the breadth of opportunity open to young people,” she said. 

A lasting impact

Three-quarters of participants in past Digital Explorers events have said they’re more open to a career in tech as a result.

The venue certainly worked for 12-year-old Reece, an Orchard School pupil and ardent Bristol City fan: “It’s so cool to be here in school time, and I loved the robots. It was a better day than I expected,” he said. Classmate Amelia, meanwhile, managed to ‘doorstep’ expert panellists with follow-up questions: “I wanted to find out more about the best parts of their jobs. Some sounded quite fun,” she revealed.

Yogesh Chauhan, TCS Director of Corporate Sustainability paid tribute to the volunteer professionals whose “generosity, talents and energy” keep the Digital Explorers show on the road: “With their help, we’ll be expanding the scheme further in the next financial year,” Chauhan said.