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The power of STEM: how technology can be a force for good during Covid-19

By Anoushka Patel, Dyson Institute Engineering Undergraduate and Arkwright Engineering Scholar

woman using tablet, women in tech, CMICovid-19 has presented unique challenges for everyone, with children and young people being one such group especially hard hit by the ongoing pandemic.

From school and university closures to the impact of lockdown on young people’s mental health, it is unsurprising that we’ve been dubbed ‘Generation Covid’.

A recent study from the London School Economics found that one in ten people aged 16-25 have lost their job during the pandemic, with young people twice as likely to have lost their jobs compared to older employees. Sadly, the study also found that employment losses and decreases in pay have been highest amongst women and individuals from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. It’s clear we need to act now to limit the long-term impact of the pandemic on young people’s learning and provide accessible job and development opportunities.

At the same time, during this most challenging of periods, we’ve also seen incredible resilience, teamwork and determination from communities and businesses up and down the country. This includes the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries who have played a crucial role in combatting the virus; whether that’s scientists working tirelessly to develop a vaccine to engineers teaming up with the military to build NHS Nightingale hospitals.

As an engineering undergraduate at the Dyson Institute, I’m naturally a little biased towards the powerful impact which STEM can have on the world. It’s also why I believe in raising aspirations amongst young people, especially girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to work in STEM and believe in their potential.

Improving gender equality and diversity in STEM

STEM has not historically held the best reputation for gender equality and diversity. While attitudes are changing for the better, with the number of women occupying science, engineering and technology (SET) management roles increasing by almost 10,000 over the past ten years, there is still much work to do.

Women make up just 12 per cent of today’s engineering workforce, a problem which is made worse by the fact that young girls in school are not aspiring towards a career in STEM. Furthermore, only 8 per cent of engineers in the UK are from BAME background. To tackle this, we have to begin breaking down the barriers and misconceptions as early as possible in a young person’s education. It’s important for young girls and students from poorer families to know that they have just as much skill and aptitude to study STEM subjects as boys, and students from privileged backgrounds. Diversity is key for enabling better creative thinking, innovation, and collaboration to flourish in the STEM industries.

Arkwright Engineering Scholarship Programme

I applied for the Arkwright Engineering Scholarship programme because I’ve always been interested in STEM and the capacity for engineering to solve our biggest social and economic challenges. The scholarship is open to all 16 year old students across the UK, and provides a two-year fully sponsored programme of practical experience, professional mentorship and careers guidance across the engineering landscape.

Programmes such as this, which provide real-world learning opportunities for young people in schools, are a great way to break down misconceptions around what it means to be an engineer, particularly for girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of the key benefits for me was the confidence boost which came from testing my STEM skills first-hand, as well as insights into the variety of career paths available in engineering. The scholarship also provided me with funding to carry out experiments and projects for my not-for-profit movement, TheTechSwitch, which is a platform that empowers young leaders of the future to act with moral, financial and technological astuteness. This enabled me to not only develop my passion for engineering, but also extend it to other passionate young people.

Starting the COVID-19 challenge

During lockdown I saw first-hand how many friends and fellow university students were struggling with university closures and a lack of work. This sparked the idea for the COVID Challenge; a virtual hackathon which encouraged sixth formers and university students to get creative and design solutions addressing the social and economic hardships stemming from Covid-19.

We wanted to create a fun project where students could utilise their STEM skills, creativity and innovative ideas for good and design something with real-world applications. Using my Arkwright Engineering Scholarship funding, we launched the COVID challenge; we posed students across the world this question: 'How can we leverage technology- hardware or software- to mitigate the economic, social or medical impacts of COVID-19'?

Applicants were put in randomised teams with five other students globally, and the energy and enthusiasm of the contests was inspiring. We saw over 220 students ranging from lower sixth to PhD level, apply from across five continents, covering more than 85 different subject disciplines, with 32 different tech-based projects. We were really excited to see that 51 per cent of applicants were female too. The winning project was an app designed to help people avoid more densely populated areas, and therefore reduce the likelihood of infection. Competitions like these allow participants from diverse backgrounds, with fresh and creative thinking, to flourish.

As a young woman working in STEM, helping to promote creativity, diversity and equality in engineering is something I hold close to my heart. I was recently elected as Dyson Institute's Head of Wellbeing and Diversity, and in this role I plan to focus on diversifying the recruitment and admissions process and outreach programmes. Giving young people from all backgrounds, equal access to opportunities to develop their STEM skills and confidence, which will pave the way for greater innovation which benefits our wider society.

You can read more about the highly commended entries at www.covidchallenge.co.uk.The Arkwright Engineering Scholarship Programme is open now to all Year 11 students in England and Wales, S4 students in Scotland and Year 12 students in Northern Ireland. For more information and to apply please visit:  https://www.arkwright.org.uk/arkwright-scholarships


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