Interview: Maggie Philbin encourages technology careers with TeenTech

Maggie Philbin talks TeenTech and why young people need to build technology and not just consume it

As a woman who has never strayed far from the technology business, Maggie Philbin is still quietly carving out a noteworthy role in the digital sector. If she is not instantly recognisable to the generation who watched Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, she is known for her long-serving role as a presenter on Tomorrow’s World.

The Labour Party’s Digital Task Force recently named Maggie Philbin as its head, tasked with reporting on why the UK is “falling behind on IT”. But it was in her capacity to promote another project that Philbin spoke to Computer Weekly: Her latest technology venture – TeenTech.

Founded in 2008, by Philbin and Chris Dodson, the TeenTech organisation aims to help young people understand the opportunities available to them in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workplace. TeenTech runs one-day events across the UK, offering hands-on exhibits and workshops from businesses and universities. 300 pupils from 30 different schools are invited to each event.

She speaks with true passion and an urgency to teach teenagers how to build technology, instead of just consuming it.

Limitations of school curriculum

TeenTech was created out of her own frustration that her daughter was being taught dull and outdated ICT lessons at school, with a careers advisor who did not mention technology careers to female students.

She said: “We don’t say that teachers have to bring 50/50 girls and boys, but it tends to end up even most of the time.

“When watching the students work we have noticed that girls don’t tend to launch themselves into things, they collaborate more than the boys. It’s empowering for girls to learn subliminally that they can do better than the boys.”

Philbin said she remembers watching a promotional video for a technology company and she had to point out that there was not one woman featured: “It was something that had not occurred to them.”

She said a lot of people she meets say they are working in science or technology because of Tomorrow’s World and that women have told her she is the reason they entered the industry: “I had no idea I had had an effect on girls wanting to go into technology. It was a secondary effect.”

Path to industry

Philbin said TeenTech did not want to be a roadshow: “Instead we wanted to be driven by regional commitment, so we always work with a partner.”

Describing TeenTech, she said: “All students will do an app design workshop during the day. During our Doncaster event there was a group of girls that designed an app and they are now launching their own app company as a result of that. We always provide a path on where they can take what they have learnt.

“Another example is when the kids were mixing sound using light. By releasing their thumb they could make different sounds and music and they loved it. Teachers were writing it down to use themselves in their own lessons.”

Philbin said she believes the national curriculum narrows down what children should be learning: “They shouldn’t feel they have to give up science, maths or engineering for example. Some subjects are hard to decide where one stops and the other one starts, so it should be a fusion of all these things. The idea that these subjects are separate needs to be addressed.”

Business applications

She said this is why TeenTech tries not to separate subjects, but shows young people how in the business world several subjects can overlap.

We wouldn’t have a workshop on how to be a doctor, but we would show the students how to use the technology and tools as a doctor. So, we had hip bones and explained the maths, engineering and radiology technology used on them. To be a doctor it needs a fusion of design, engineering, technology and biology,” she said.

Philbin added: “We had an athlete who had lost a leg and the children were able to choose different legs, for running, for when riding his motorcycle and so on, to learn the design behind each leg and then they learnt how to fit them.”

TeenTech’s awards were designed the same way: “We deliberately didn’t have our awards across technology or coding-based categories – I wanted them across industries instead, so we have transport, education, and so on.”

The biggest TeenTech so far was held at the Copper Box in the Olympic Park for 500 12- to 14-year-olds.

Read more on IT technical skills