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Explorers’ Go Virtual to Beat Corona Crisis

Moving to a virtual model has propelled TCS’ technology career series into the future

What’s the most exciting tech you use? Who inspired you to do your job? Could I have a career in technology even if I’m not studying computer science?

These are some of the questions students put to industry experts at the first-ever Virtual Digital Explorers event in late June 2020. In a big change from the planned physical event for hundreds of teenagers in Liverpool, more than 9,000 students from around the UK took part online.

This is the story of how a crisis presented an e-learning opportunity − with the commitment and energy of volunteers at its heart.

Collaborative effort

In recent years, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has hosted multiple Digital Explorers events with the Engineering Development Trust (EDT). In 2019 alone, events in Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh engaged 2,500 12- to 17-year-olds in a series of digital workshops and mentored sessions.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, a rethink was required. A digital alternative was rapidly developed, using TCS’ collaborative learning platform, iON Digital Glass Room™, as a base, with some of the live events and activities rebuilt from scratch.

Many of the elements that made previous Digital Explorers events so popular were still present: insights into in-demand skills, glimpses of the future world of work, some myth-busting about techies, and digital design challenges to earn students Industrial Cadets accreditation.

And while Virtual Digital Explorers may have lacked face-to-face networking, it more than made up for it in scale and geographical reach.

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Industry advice

In ‘Meet the Mentor’ Q&A sessions, volunteer panel members from companies including General Electric (GE), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and TCS discussed their own career paths, typical working days and the digital transformations that the future of work will bring. They also took students’ questions.

“Follow your interests and keep your options open. You’ll find the role that fits,” Sally Cockayne, a maths undergraduate on an Industrial Cadets placement with GSK, told students. Cockayne said she found working on drugs trials at GSK especially rewarding. “The best part for me is having a direct impact on people’s lives.”

GE’s Director of Operations, Mike Brown, spoke of the value of outside interests. “Show employers you can function away from the computer screen,” he said, even as placement student Isabel Elliot impressed the online audience with her account of working alongside a ‘liquid-handling robot’ in her lab.

Flexible learning

The virtual event also provided a wide variety of practical programmes, with live panels and Q&As complemented by videos and mini tutorials, as well as inspiring activities.

The youngest cohort, the seven- to nine-year-olds, were given the task of reinventing a household item as a smart device. After some basic coaching in app design, they then set about devising an app to control their new device.

Older students, aged 10 or over, were encouraged to think about what a technology career could hold for them – and how to get there. They were also challenged to create their own start-up – identifying a market, branding their company and even drafting job descriptions.

While there was no formal assessment, a rewards-based approach ensured enthusiasm and commitment remained high. All modules had to be completed to earn Challenger-level accreditation from Industrial Cadets – which the students could then include on their CVs.

Whatever the activity, flexibility was key and the students were in control. Whether at home or at school, during live week or later, they could work at their own speed, throughout the summer.

A ‘much-needed’ scheme

Digital Explorers appears to be succeeding in its virtual avatar. Three-quarters of young people who attended recent Digital Explorers events said they were more likely to consider a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career as a result.

And schools were just as enthusiastic about the virtual version. “Students who have accessed the resources have given hugely positive feedback,” a teacher in Manchester told TCS. “It’s also been a much-needed change to their ordinary schoolwork.”

The virtual events were a game-changer for reaching less well-served communities too, according to Nikki Elliot, EDT’s Head of Industry Engagement. “The beauty of previous events was that young people got to mix with industry professionals and other students and get hands-on with the technology. But the magic of this (the virtual event) is that it breaks down the very real geographical barriers that prevent schools attending live events,” said Elliot.

Adapting the programme to extraordinary times has been a valuable experiment, said TCS Director of Corporate Sustainability, Yogesh Chauhan. “At a time when students, teachers and parents are being challenged in whole new ways, it’s been rewarding to work with EDT, industry colleagues and our own volunteers to produce an imaginative solution,” he said.

“Going virtual has tested out new ways for us to engage this key age group in large numbers. That’s worth exploring further,” Chauhan added.