With the announcement of new funding for Women in Innovation, we look at how an interest in tech can be fostered from an early age.
At the Women in Innovation: Changing Perceptions, Inspiring Growth event, Andrew Duffey was awed by the audience before he even got up to speak.
“One of our big challenges is finding successful role models for our girls to look up to,” said the Head of Design and Technology at Henrietta Barnett School in Hertfordshire, who sat on a panel about growing the number of female innovators, “and as I sat at the back of the hall, waiting for my slot, I thought: ‘there’s about 150 role models here. This is brilliant.’”
The event, the culmination of Innovate UK’s first Women in Innovation programme, showcased some of the brightest thinkers and entrepreneurs in technology today, including the female founders of hugely successful tech start-ups.
These are heights that may one day be reached by Duffey’s own daughter, Emily. Emily and her friend Beth compete as a robotics team known as the WGCmicrobots, Last year, WGCmicrobots received sponsorship from Innovate UK as part of the Women in Innovation programme, allowing the girls to take part in the Vex Robotics World Championships in the United States. They were the youngest team in the UK to secure a place in the competition.
Duffey, whose background is in design, looks after a dozen extra-curricular robotics teams at Henrietta Barnett, a leading girls’ grammar school. This year, they won top honours in the national robotics championships in both middle and high school divisions.
When he first began working with robots, Emily was seven. “I brought it home, just so I could understand the things I was working with, and she was just really interested,” he said. “I brought another kit home, and I gave it to her and said, ‘have a little play’ while I carried on with what I needed to prepare for lessons, and lo and behold, she took to it like a duck to water, really. I just saw a little spark, and I thought, ‘how fantastic that she’s able to enjoy this kind of stuff.’
“We started her off very, very gently, building and designing robots, and robotics competitions – and it’s grown into a situation now where they’ve just again qualified for the World Championships for the second time, and she’s only 10.”
Henrietta Barnett has “a really strong maths and science department,” said Duffey. “We have the international space competition that the girls do as part of physics, we have crack the code, as part of the computing department – so there’s loads of things going on that the girls have access to. There’s enough to cater for everyone who wants to take part in some type of STEM activity.”
But equally, he pointed out the value of creativity in technology: “It needs to interact with humans at some point, so there needs to be some form of design to make it easier to use or manipulate or more intuitive to use, so people can use it easily,” he said. “That has to be designed by someone.”
The robotics clubs are equally popular with students with more of a creative bent. “It’s not a ‘you have to fit into the mould to get into the club’ type of club,” said Duffey. “It’s not about coming with a natural aptitude – it’s more about, ‘who’s got the energy and the enthusiasm, and we’ll help you develop the skills after that’.”
There was no robotics programme at Emily’s primary school. “When they first started, they needed lots of mentoring and guidance and support,” said Duffey, “and it’s got to the stage now where she feels confident enough to just tell me to go away.”
With their parents’ support, Emily and Beth are now running free weekly robotics sessions for children in their community. “It’s a shame, really, that there isn’t a chance for children of all ages to have access to these types of clubs,” said Duffey.
“Funding needs to come from somewhere, in order to give students irrespective of background access to new tech. It would be a disaster if someone who had the enthusiasm and the aptitude for tech can’t get to develop their skills and interest in that area purely because they can’t afford to take part.”
Luckily, with champions like Duffey, and with ongoing investment just announced in the Women in Innovation programme, the democratisation of tech for all girls and women continues.
-Interview by Katharine Rooney