STEM Heroes

The last few months have been challenging for all, and lockdown has been particularly difficult for young people. Youth charities and support organisations are reporting that young people are feeling increasingly isolated - missing friends and family, and the routine which school brings - are having to adapt quickly to learning online, which poses its own unique challenges. These are just some of the short-term implications for students living in lockdown but many young people are concerned about their futures.

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 will have a long-lasting impact on the economy and the opportunities available to young people. This is something we should all be mindful of, but I believe there are some positive implications.

Firstly, our students are adapting quickly to the challenges of learning and working online. UTC students are acting as young professionals; engaging impressively with a range of software, virtual meetings and systems which are likely to shape the way many businesses operate in a post-Covid world. The practical use of technology will be more important than ever as travel is reduced and organisations need to adapt and innovate in many ways. Our ability and willingness to work from home, outside of the education sector, may also help in the fight against climate change with emissions from commuting significantly reduced.

Secondly, this situation has demonstrated very clearly the importance of science and technical knowledge, and we are all recognising and appreciating the achievements of STEM specialists. Healthcare professionals, medical researchers, engineers, data analysts, technologists, economists, logisticians, IT support – these STEM specialists are our heroes in this crisis, and rightly so.

If we were not able to understand the virus and how to tackle it, many more lives would be lost. Interestingly, the first coronaviruses were discovered in 1964 by June Almeida, a Scottish scientist working in Canada. Her pioneering work paved the way to our understanding of how to handle viruses and her scientific methods are still used by virologists today. Almeida’s work is an advert for scientific innovation, international collaboration, and the important impact of women in STEM careers.

Scientists are rightly leading the thinking in how to minimise the impact of the virus. They are shaping government policy and it will be technical development which will lead to a vaccine which means that the threat of the virus is minimised.

Thirdly, there’s the need for technical solutions in the form of medical equipment. This can be seen in the rapid design and creation of the Nightingale Hospitals in just a few days and the high tech ventilators being developed by engineering companies. We must recognise that we cannot just rely on imports of these vital supplies and equipment, but must develop UK industrial capacity to both manufacture equipment and to design and innovate. That will be both a challenge for government strategy and an opportunity for regional businesses over the next few years.

At UTC, we’ve seen first-hand how STEM and technical skills can be used to create solutions to problems. Our Visors for Victory initiative was created at the beginning of April in response to the lack of PPE available to key workers. Our staff designed the visors and have been working with students and parents to manufacture them using the college’s specialist equipment. As of early May, over 3400 visors have been delivered to more than 100 organisations across the North East, including hospitals, care homes, GP surgeries, community nurses, charities and food banks. It has been incredible to see how staff, students, and the wider community have come together to help make these much needed visors.

Our students in particular have been incredible, with a number of them volunteering to help in the production process. Year 13 student Tom Shepherd summed up how his education at UTC enabled him to quickly adapt to the visor production process:

‘I have spent the past 4 years learning engineering skills at UTC and when I saw the school begin production of visors to help fight the pandemic I realised I could help out. The design and manufacture skills I had enjoyed learning and developing meant that I was already familiar with the tools and machines used to produce the visors, so it made sense that I should try to help in providing much needed PPE for the NHS locally. I firmly believe that since I have these skills this is the perfect opportunity to use them and give something back.’

Tom is planning to study Product Design at university and I have no doubt that he will go on to become a STEM hero of the future.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the long run, we have a generation of young people who are seeing the impact of the community-minded application of technology.  That is priceless as we emerge from this crisis and encourage the use of their talents to have a positive impact on society, becoming STEM heroes of the future. There is no better education than that of UTCs in preparing young people for meaningful careers. Scientists, technologists and engineers will be in huge demand as we find new ways of working and innovative solutions to the challenges of health, inequality and climate change. It is vital that we harness this opportunity to improve the way we educate, the way we work, and the way we live.

Tom Dower,