Teaching "Design Thinking" for a career in tech & digital

Inspiring the next generation in tech & digital

In mid-July, I wrapped up delivery on my latest freelance project, which was to design a programme to inspire 11-14 year olds to pursue a career in tech. Dreamt up by the inimitable Tracey Johnson at Barnsley Digital Media Centre, this was a pilot project under the TechTown banner to try out some ideas. I was given a small budget for some external speakers and resources, and the creative freedom to approach the project how I saw fit.

Getting creative with a 3D printing pen

Getting creative with a 3D printing pen

A bit of background...

The URBACT TechTown programme brings together 11 towns and small-to-medium cities across Europe for knowledge sharing and practical action to encourage digital entrepreneurship as a key part of sustainable urban development. I last wrote about TechTown when I was invited to deliver a workshop about entrepreneurship ecosystems to the group in Tallinn, Estonia.

TechTown is an URBACT Action Planning Network, funded by ERDF, and led by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council at the Barnsley Digital Media Centre

TechTown is an URBACT Action Planning Network, funded by ERDF, and led by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council at the Barnsley Digital Media Centre

As part of the TechTown programme, each town / city has set a problem statement and objectives unique to their circumstances. Some relate to education and skills, others relate to the physical environment and incubation. Barnsley’s problem statement is, “There are a low number of job opportunities within the digital tech sector in Barnsley, and the jobs that are available tend to be low-skilled.” Barnsley’s objectives are: 1) to create more high skills digital and tech job opportunities, and 2) to develop a supply of talented people to fill digital and tech job opportunities.

TechTown Lab

Tracey invited me to work on a project related to Barnsley's second objective. She had a name ("TechTown Lab"), a learning outcome (“show Key Stage 3 students what skills are needed for a career in tech”) and a rough idea for a format ("translate the 'hack day' approach to be a day of learning and hands-on activities to show young people what it's like to work as a startup founder"). Best of all, she gave me the creative freedom to approach the challenge how I thought best. That’s a freelancer’s dream right there! So, where to start? In the planning stages for this project, three themes emerged: what are the skillsets required for a career In tech; what is the impact of the emphasis on STEM subjects; and what’s the impact of being “good” at one subject and “bad” at another?


Skillsets for a career in tech

When thinking career opportunities in the tech or digital sector, we tend to lean towards the “hard skills”, i.e. programming, coding, and building clever apps. In the UK, there are whole host of fantastic initiatives that teach this skills at every level imaginable, from extra-curricular Code Clubs and STEM clubs in schools, to professional coding courses for adults such as Makers Academy. It is now possible to get an entry level programming/coding/developer job having completed a 12-week course.

Without discounting the importance of these skills, it is misleading (not to mention limiting) to impart to young people that they all need to be coding geniuses in order to work in tech. Arguably, I work in the tech sector, but my coding skills extend to just about being able to the difference between html and cms. Ruby will always be a gemstone to me, and why it’s On Rails I have never understood. My point is, there are a whole range of different skills sets required for a career in tech.

Emphasis on STEM

This led me to think about the ever-increasing emphasis on teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) at school, in particular the emphasis on encouraging girls to study these subjects. There is no doubt that a whole range of initiatives and interventions are required to encourage more people, girls and women in particular, to pursue a course of study in STEM or a career in tech. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of studying arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Teenagers studying

Teenagers studying

This has been written about before and in far more depth (here, here, and here for starters). In essence, an emphasis on STEM at the exclusion of other subjects will not properly equip future generations with the skills to analyse, interpret, and prepare for the social consequences of the rise of technological advances such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, leaps forward in HealthTech etc. (This is why the acronym STEAM is increasingly used, with the A standing for Arts.)

It’s the linguists, philosophers, and anthropologists who can take a holistic and cross-cultural view of the rapid global changes borne of technological advancements. It’s the social scientists, journalists, and economists who can interpret how technology affects society right here and right now. It’s the historians, archaeologists, and writers who can make reasonable assumptions about the future, whether that’s based on interpretation of past events or on bringing to life previously unimagined dystopia or utopia in science fiction literature. (Forgive the broad brush stereotypes in these illustrative examples. Also, can you tell I'm an Arts & Humanities graduate?!)

Worryingly, due in part the emphasis on STEM and the fact that universities face more pressure on churning out “job-ready employees”, the UK is experiencing a sharp decline in the number of students studying arts, humanities, and social sciences, as well as decreased funding for these subjects, to the point where some departments are closing down (archaeology and anthropology are at particular risk).

What are we “good” at?

And finally, it got me to thinking about how what we are “good” at is usually decided at a very young age. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I fell behind in maths. I struggled by but never really caught up, and from then on I put maths into the “not good at” box in my head.

My nightmare at school… give me a book to read over this any day

My nightmare at school… give me a book to read over this any day

I enjoy logical thinking and finding patterns in things, but this belief that I was “not good at” maths was unintentionally reinforced (by me, by my teachers, by my peers) throughout my years at school. Who knows where it might have led me had I not written it off so early. My point is that too early on in our lives, certain subjects are put into certain boxes, whether by us or by our teachers. The trick is how to bypass those boxes, so that students know that there are a whole range of valued skills for a career in tech.

Design Thinking

Taking all of this ruminating into account, I concluded that rather than designing a programme about “tech” per se, I would introduce the students to Design Thinking. In essence, Design Thinking is the ability to understand a problem, the ability to understand the user, and the ability to creatively come up with a solution that works. At its core, it is creative problem solving. These “soft skills” are useful to anyone, whether or not they pursue a career in digital or tech.

Design Thinking cuts across all skill sets and career paths. For pupils who are “good at” and interested in STEM subjects such as coding, computers, maths, engineering, Design Thinking teaches them not to forget about the end goal: if they are making a tech product, it has to work for the people using it. There is a skill in understanding how to solve problems and user needs; it’s not just about the flashy tech solution. For pupils who are “good at” and interested in creative subjects such as art, drama, creative writing, languages, Design Thinking shows them that there are roles for them in tech and that this sector is not only for the computer geeks. Their problem-solving skills and ability to talk to people are highly valuable attributes.

So far, so much theorising. In my next blog post, I will delve into the practicalities of designing a Design Thinking programme for TechTown Lab, and the day of activities itself.