From primary school to scholar: How BT is helping nurture the engineers of the future

From free school resources to funding, as one of the world’s biggest technology companies, discover what BT is doing to help and inspire the next generation

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in our lives, but the UK is facing a digital skills shortage. It’s estimated 12 million people don’t have digital skills to survive in the workplace, creating a skills gap which is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year.

BT is committed to help reduce the shortfall and improve the UK’s economic opportunities by providing young people of all ages with the tools and opportunity to develop their skills in STEM subjects - science, computing, engineering and maths.

[Read more: 7 things parents should know about tech literacy]

At the opening of the Tommy Flowers Room at Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), we spoke to Tim Whitley, managing director, research and innovation at BT, to find out how the company is doing this.

“BT is passionate about trying to encourage youngsters of all ages to get excited about technology, to get excited about computer science - the STEM subjects in the round.

“It’s super important for the social wellbeing of the UK; it’s super important for the economic wellbeing of the UK. Engineering and Science are at the heart of that.”

One of the ways BT does this is through its relationship with the IET to nurture what Whitley calls “this generations young engineers.”

Each year the IET Diamond Jubilee Scholarship scheme works with corporations to provide financial support to engineering undergraduates.

“BT has got about 75 BT Diamond Jubilee Scholars, all doing engineering subjects, all at great universities. Pleasingly there’s a 50/50 gender mix which we are particularly pleased and excited about” says Whitley.

Opening of Tommy Flowers Room

Diamond Jubilee Scholar Zoe Mabo (above with Tim Whitley and Gavin Patterson) applied for a place on the scheme in sixth form after seeing an advert on the IET website, “I didn’t have any expectations, but I got it and BT were my sponsor,” she says.

In her second year, Mabo was offered an internship at BT’s Research and Development centre Adastral Park near Ipswich, which provided valuable experience.

“I learnt so much. I was in the software development team, they are the people who do all the programming for the internal and external network,” she explains.

“It was really interesting and very challenging, they gave me a real project – I was doing things that were going to be on the website.

“I felt that pressure to do even better and it forced me to learn quicker. I feel that that’s the best environment to learn in – under pressure…. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to do it.”

[Read more: What is Adastral Park?  Find out about the UK’s high-tech facility]

Whitley says the opportunity to work in the labs with industrial researchers gives the undergraduates a glimpse of how academic studies can apply them in the context of the real wold.

“We are trying to fulfil the purpose statement of BT, which is to use the power of communications to make a better world. That process strongly relies on engineering and science leadership. Having 75 of the best and brightest young engineers in the UK working as part of that scheme and interacting with BT is very powerful for us and very exciting.”

Primary and secondary schools

It isn’t just undergraduate students that BT is helping. As part of the Tech Literacy initiative, the Barefoot Computing Project provides resources for educators to teach computer science to primary school children.

“The initiative is very much about trying to help primary school children get excited about the way computation thinking and computer science can solve real-world problems and how it can make things better,” says Whitley.

Children dealing with educational coding product

Teachers can use lesson plans and attend workshops to help them gain confidence and ultimately inspire more young people to improve their tech literacy and consider a career in STEM. The free scheme recently reached its 3,000th school and over 1.5 million pupils.

BT is also active in secondary schools, assisting with coding clubs, but also according to Whitley helping young people join the dots between science and technology and how they can make the world a better place.

“Yes, you can do some of these subjects for their own interest – they are fabulous, interesting etc, but also to make them (students) see the higher goal. It’s through study of those subjects you can genuinely transform society and the life of citizens for the better.”

Whitley says BT’s commitment to educational people about STEM offering is “a whole continuum.” At the other end of the education spectrum, BT opened the Tommy Flowers Institute a Higher Education ICT training institute aimed at postgraduate students. Located at Adastral Park, its aim is to develop world-class research leaders by linking industry with academia.

“As the UK’s leading technology company we are both proud and see it as a responsibility. We are pleased to respond to that responsibility to try and enthuse young people at every stage of their education, that studying these subjects can lead to engaging, exciting very purposeful careers.”

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