STEAM not just STEM: how can we encourage more creativity?

Creative ideas take time. They are often generated after an initial period of thinking deeply about the problem, considering different ways to frame the problem, and exploring different possible solutions. Sir James Dyson developed over 5,000 prototypes before he patented his vacuum cleaner. And Walt Disney animated cartoons for nearly two decades before his first big success, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

So how can we encourage more creativity? How can we help people, as Apple famously put it in 1997, to ‘think different’? One way is to go back and start at the beginning. With children in school. And by rewiring our educational system to focus on STEAM rather than STEM.

In recent years, as the United Kingdom has faced stiff economic and technological competition from China and other countries, there has been a surge of interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is clear that if we are to maintain our position as a global leader in innovation, we have to increase the emphasis on these four subjects in our schools.

Yet this is an area where we have lagged behind relative to other countries. We need to up our game dramatically. The UK ranks 16th out of 20 OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications. We have particular skills shortages in sectors of the economy that depend on STEM subjects. Nearly 40% of employers report difficulties recruiting staff with relevant STEM skills.

But STEM alone will not do it. We need to add an A for arts. Focusing only on the sciences is not enough to stretch the mind and encourage creativity.

Take a look at some of the most successful and innovative products produced in the last ten years. The iPhone is not simply a technological tool. It is a piece of art and a fantastic work of creative design. And the applications are more than mere products of programming. The best are feats of imagination.

The STEAM movement is already being championed in the United States, spearheaded by academics and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). They argue that the US educational system (and, I think, the UK) is still functioning in the same way it did a hundred years ago. It has the same outdated systems, institutions and traditions.

We are trying to educate eight million children via an antiquated school system. Or as the academics at the RISD put it,

“Schools were, and still are, structured like the factories they were developed to serve. They treat education like an assembly line – you move from one task (class) to the next – day in and day out. There is little collaboration or interchange.”

The danger is that innovation will continue to wane. To become a more innovative economy requires the ability to seize new opportunities and adapt to change. But historically, the UK has not been as successful at commercialisation and development as we have been at basic research. We have often been slower than competitors to take up and deploy existing technologies.

Our education system tends to reward test scores and rote memorisation rather than creativity and problem solving. Our students are learning antiquated skills in a modern, and changing world. And that will be a recipe for disaster as the world continues to move towards greater connectivity, innovation and technological change.

Or, as the US secretary of education Richard Riley famously summed it up, “The jobs in the greatest demand in the future don’t yet exist and will require workers to use technologies that have not yet been invented to solve problems that we don’t yet even know are problems.”

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Inspiring digital skills in the next generation

I recently had the opportunity to go with colleagues on behalf of Sopra Steria to Victoria College in Belfast alongside Digital Shared Service (DSS) to present to fifty teenage girls on Working in IT.  It was a great opportunity for us to give something back to the local community and support Digital NI in promoting STEM subjects and digital technology careers to students.

Sopra Steria has an active role in each of our local communities where we partake in outreach programmes.

We aim to open the student’s eyes to the wonders of IT, the world of digital and its impact on individuals working and personal life.

It was a strange, but nice feeling being back in the classroom, especially being the one talking at the front! I had the challenge of beginning the session, introducing my company and myself to the students and explaining my own journey from a history degree to working in IT as a Graduate Business Analyst. I explained how not all jobs in IT are code based, the unique job roles included within IT and the different skills needed.

We next wanted to highlight the importance of IT within everyday life and introduced “Game Changer” a programme which has the ambition of raising physical fitness and promoting healthy lifestyles in children and that Sopra Steria is working on with Halton CCG and Widnes Vikings Rugby. Through the programme we have developed TRAKKA – a fitness band and associated measurement and monitoring application – and Sopra Steria’s programme lead Louise O’Leary captivated the students, challenging them to think about how simple changes in lifestyle can create big changes in wellbeing. Although the TRAKKA wristband was designed for younger kids they were interested to see how the ecosystem developed from TRAKKA:

Inspire, Inform, Improve

diagram 'trakka' ecosystem - circle of text: Nutrition, Data/Web/Apps, Information, Behaviour & Wellbeing, Academic Improvement, Activity, Content, Ideas - back to Nutrition

Data is at the heart of TRAKKA, highlighting performance and areas for improvement and following on from Louise’s presentation, another of my colleagues Dermot Boyle moved the conversation on to another important topic, data analytics, bringing it to life with real life and familiar examples. This is another emerging IT area where we will see increasing focus over the coming years and where apprentices and graduates will be able to make their mark as they start their careers. Designed to get them involved, we concluded with a quick hands-on session, asking them to answer questions from information in our TRAKKA, Power BI dashboard.

In our work with other schools and colleges across the UK, we’ve been involved in a number of projects providing Raspberry Pi kits helping to building IT and entrepreneurial skills. At the end of our visit we donated a Raspberry Pi to Victoria College to support them in working with the students to develop coding knowledge in a fun and interactive way.

Louise, Dermot and I all really loved being involved in this visit; it was fun and energetic and we really hope the students felt the same. It appears our time was well spent as the school has asked whether some of the children could take up work placements – so we may even see a few of the faces again in and around the Belfast office! It’s a big choice choosing your future career and it would be nice to think that we provided someone with that spark of inspiration to enter the world of IT.

If this is something that you feel interested in or want to know more about, please feel free to get in touch – we would be more than happy to help! You can leave a reply below, or contact me via email.

image of students at Victoria College
Our student audience at Victoria College

Look at how our sustainability programme encourages students to build skills and careers in IT.

Understand more about our vibrant team and work in Northern Ireland.

We offer great training, development and career progression prospects – find out more about our Early Careers opportunities.

Working in IT: an education

Building relationships with schools as a STEM ambassador

Following on from our attendance at Leith Academy’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers event, the opportunity arose for Sopra Steria to welcome a class of third year pupils to the Edinburgh office.

After our visit to Leith Academy, we found that the school pupils (and teacher) considered a career in IT to involve tasks similar to those of a career in admin, using standard tools such as Microsoft Office. The main objective of the day, therefore, was to broaden the pupils’ (and teacher’s!) perspective on what IT really is, as well as give them an insight into the great work that Sopra Steria does in the industry – but how were we going to do this in a way that would make them understand, and do so without being overly technical?

We developed an agenda of activities for the morning, with three separate sessions:

  1. We asked the pupils to break down an everyday activity such as the booking of flights, as we thought that this would be something the pupils would understand and would possibly have experienced first-hand at home. The idea was to break this seemingly straightforward task into its IT sub-parts, showing and explaining how data flows between them. Being an interactive and relaxed session, the pupils really got involved and they clearly found it both enjoyable and fascinating; they were previously unaware of how many different systems there are behind what they saw as a simple process and therefore had no concept of the levels of data involved.
  2. A presentation on UX delivered by Emily Walters and Lynsey Brownlow, which opened the pupils’ eyes to the idea of building good user experience and its importance in the development of well-designed software. This was a hands-on session, and got their brains ticking as they thought about the most user-friendly ways to redesign a standard yoghurt pot!
  3. The pupils were unleashed into the office to chat to members of staff about their roles in Sopra Steria. Rather than give them a set of questions, we encouraged them to think of different questions to ask. As staff from all areas of the business got involved from development through to HR, it gave them a great insight into the varying roles that are available in IT, and it was interesting to see how different members of our staff showed the pupils what they did, or how they answered their questions. It was also great to see such a buzz around the office from both the pupils and our staff!

It was clear that the pupils enjoyed their day, with positive feedback from both themselves (especially after they told us they had been looking forward to the day after looking up and researching our company and what we do) and their teacher, who was so impressed with our morning that she asked if Sopra Steria could act as Leith Academy’s STEM ambassador. This was a great achievement and conclusion of the morning and we hope that we can continue to build strong relationships not just with Leith Academy, but with other schools in Edinburgh and beyond.

Sopra Steria has since been approached about the possibility of doing days like this again; if this is something that you feel could benefit your school, please feel free to get in touch – we would be more than happy to help! You can leave a reply below, or contact me, or my colleagues Ross Graham or Stephen Readman by email.