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Facebook helps pupils understand more about tech roles

The social media company has launched a mentoring programme that allows students to ask Facebook engineers questions about their role and career path

Social media giant Facebook has launched a mentoring programme to help students and teachers understand more about technology roles and how to go about getting them.

The programme will help 120 pupils from disadvantaged schools who aspire to be engineers by giving them one-to-one mentorship with engineers from Facebook over the next six months.

In partnership with social enterprise Jump, the programme was developed as part of Facebook’s participation in the Year of Engineering in the UK, a campaign focused on encouraging young people into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers.

Kyle McGinn, director of product management at Facebook, said firms such as Facebook, as well as other large technology companies, were “lucky” because they could take a forward-looking view to developing the Stem pipeline.

“Investing in the long term, going in at this age group rather than a later age group, is pretty important,” he said. “I also think really strongly that we shouldn’t make it wholly focused on software engineers, because when I talk externally about Facebook to friends and colleagues I talk about all the different roles in tech, and I think they’re amazing.”

Students chosen for the Facebook mentorship programme will receive monthly mentoring sessions on topics such as careers advice and help with writing a CV. Some 290 students from 11 schools across London have already applied for a place.

In addition to this, again as part of Facebook’s participation in the Year of Engineering, the social networking firm held an open day in its London offices to allow 100 pupils from secondary schools in the area to interact with its employees in partnership with the Primary Engineers Programme.

Pupils ranging from years nine to 11 were able to work alongside Facebook engineers and product teams in workshops where they were encouraged to brainstorm ideas about how to use technology to solve real-world problems.

As well as developing ideas, pupils had the chance to learn about the career paths of the Facebook employees they met, and the products they work on within Facebook, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), WhatsApp, Instagram filters, or Workplace, and how these could address real-world issues.

Where engineering meets creativity

Many believe young people, careers advisors and teachers are unaware of the depth and breadth of Stem roles, and it is therefore difficult to encourage under-represented groups to consider roles in these industries.

McGinn’s own teenage daughter was told by a careers adviser not to choose a computer science GCSE, despite getting high grades, supposedly because it would not help her towards a university place.

Read more about Stem education

“This shows the broader problem,” he said. “We don’t have to solve it just for this audience [students], but also for the teachers, the career advisors, everyone.”

As well as emphasising roles in software engineering, McGinn said it was important to focus on the importance of creativity in various technology roles throughout firms such as Facebook.

“Take something like the AR or VR team, for example. They’re trying to completely reinvent the future of interacting with people, of collaborating, and we have to be careful that at interview stage we don’t filter out people who are just super-creative,” he said. “You need UX [user experience] designers, content strategists and product designers. It isn’t just about engineering, and it’s not just about mechanics or software.”

Susan Scurlock, CEO and founder of Primary Engineer Programmes, emphasised how the process of the workshops was not just about tech, but about problem-solving.

She said one of the previous winners of the firm’s programmes was in attendance at the Facebook mentoring event, having submitted the idea of a wristband that collects kinetic energy from movement which could then be used to charge your phone.

As well as promoting creative thinking, Scurlock said the programme was created to help children and teachers to learn more about engineering skills.

“It’s really important that the engineering profession reflects the society we serve – we’re inventing new technology for all society to use, so the teams inventing it need to be representative”
Jane Sutton, Royal Academy of Engineering

“Throughout all these projects, we realised that the questions you want to ask engineers about what they do, only you know what they are,” she said. “If we gave you an opportunity to ask those questions, then you’d know more about the kind of career you want and the kind of career you don’t want.”

Diversity nurtures creativity

One of the schools taking part in the Facebook open day was a girls’ school, and half of the engineers working with the children on the day were women.

Though only 12% of UK engineers are women, Jane Sutton, communications manager for the Royal Academy of Engineering, pointed out that with an annual shortfall of engineers at around 59,000 a year, “we need boys as well – we need everybody”.

This includes other tech talent pools, such as those in the black and minority ethnic (Bame) community.

Sutton pointed out that technology and engineering were some of the worst sectors for diverse representation.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there that suggests diverse teams are more creative,” she said. “It’s really important that the engineering profession reflects the society we serve – we’re inventing new technology for all society to use, so the teams inventing it need to be representative.”

Much like having non-diverse teams creates bias in the technologies they create, a lack of diverse role models can prevent young people from considering a career in Stem.

Government envoy for the Year of Engineering, Stephen Metcalfe, said the UK would continue to “miss out on talent” if people keep ruling themselves out as engineers because of a lack of knowledge about technology roles.

“Engineering is a creative, trailblazing career that shapes the world around us, yet too many young people are in the dark about the opportunities it offers,” he said.

“Engineering is a creative, trailblazing career that shapes the world around us, yet too many young people are in the dark about the opportunities it offers”
Stephen Metcalfe, government envoy, Year of Engineering

Teachers have claimed they need help to encourage children into Stem subjects and have admitted they lack confidence in their own ability to teach subjects such as coding, with many experts claiming the only way to shift this dial is for the technology industry itself to get involved in encouraging people into Stem.

“Leading technology companies like Facebook play a vital role in inspiring the next generation of engineers and innovators, and it is wonderful to see so many young people given the opportunity to discover first-hand what an engineering career could look like,” said Metcalfe.

The UK’s computing curriculum has been a step in the right direction in making young people aware of technology concepts, but some say it is too focused on coding, with little focus on where computing fits in to other careers.

Facebook’s McGinn said technology should be used throughout school subjects, much like it will be used in the workplace in future life – suggesting using VR to look at dinosaur bones or using computers in maths classes.

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