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Have you watched the thought-provoking TED talk by Matt Ridley, ‘When ideas have sex’?  If not, I recommend that you do.  He explores how the human race has evolved by developing ways of bringing together ideas and combining technologies.  This ‘collective brain’ as he calls it is dependent on our ability to communicate ideas and co-operate with others, not on how clever we are as individuals.

Take for example the mobile phone.  An everyday object that has become an integral part of life and which, according to mobiThinking, has around 6.8billion subscribers worldwide.  But no one person can make a mobile phone from scratch.  We need the oil extractors to feed the chemical plants who make the plastics.  We need the software engineers to create the user interface, craft the functionality and create the apps.

It was with these thoughts of connectivity and the power of technology whirring in my head that I sat down to write this piece.  No matter which area of science or engineering you examine, no matter which technological advances or amazing scientific feats you consider, people are at the centre of it all.  Not lone scientists experimenting amongst bubbling beakers or solo programmers coding away in dimly lit basements; groups of motivated, creative people working together to bring us the latest gadgets or make the world a better place.

A shining local example is the Technology Strategy Board funded EyeHub project in Guildford whose work on the safety and security of the Internet of Things is helping ‘make every day places safer and smarter’.  The cross-functional technology talent required to collaborate on projects like these certainly shows Matt Ridley’s ‘collective brain’ in action.

When you look at different teams of scientists and engineers working together, combining technologies and sharing ideas, it’s exciting.  The possibilities and opportunities by default are endless.  So why does it appear that there are still not enough young people taking a science and engineering route?  And is this really the case?

Professor Andy Hopper, President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, wrote in The Huffington Post in June that there is a projected demand for more than two million engineers over the next two decades.  Although it is difficult to predict accurate figures, comparing demand with supply shows a shortfall.  But why?  An interesting piece of work by the National Foundation of Educational Research highlights that many young people think science and engineering have limited career prospects and they are more difficult to study.

It is true that training and working in science and engineering requires professional development, evolving skills and an appetite for learning.  They are not the type of subjects that require an hour a week at university or a two-day apprenticeship; they require commitment.  The issue of difficulty is of course relative.  We must show young people that they don’t need to be an academic genius to become an engineer or add value to the technology mix.  Plus if they are prepared to make an effort the rewards can be amazing.

To help face these challenges organisations and individuals are doing great work to raise the profile and understanding of science and engineering.  SATRO, The Royal Academy of Engineering, STEM Ambassadors like Phil Edwards of Weald Technology and many more.  As role models with real-life stories to tell they are helping inspire young people to be the technology connectors and creators of the future and give them insight into the exciting opportunities available in science and engineering.

originally featured by Surrey Chambers of Commerce in ‘The Chamber’ magazine.

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