Maggie Philbin

Back Story: ‘The more diverse our industry, the more beneficial it is to society’

Image credit: Alpha Manufacturing

After eight years hosting ‘Tomorrow’s World’, Maggie Philbin OBE now helps teenagers expand their horizons through a charity she founded. TV presenter Dr Shini Somara finds out more.

Shini Somara: How did Teen Tech begin?

Maggie Philbin: Teen Tech began through a need for more diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). When I look back on my days working in both BBC Children’s and in what was the Science and Features Department, it is clear that I was living in a female-empowered bubble. Back then, I got to work with many fabulous female producers, editors, and researchers, which made me unaware of the lack of diversity in the science and tech world. 

After ‘Tomorrow’s World’ I became acutely aware that women struggle to stay in male-​dominated industries, such as the science and technology industries, and I wanted to do something about this. 

After a couple of decades of experience in science and technology media, the huge void between what people do in their day jobs and what teenagers know of these industries became very stark. I wanted to fill this void specifically, and the most effective way of addressing this seemed to be through listening to teenagers directly. So, back in 2007, I wanted to know first-hand why statistics indicated that girls were not choosing maths and physics, for example. 

SS: What has Teen Tech learned from listening to teenagers?

MP: I think the greatest misconception about teenagers is that they are not interested in tech. In listening to what they have to say, this seems to be absolutely untrue. 

There is also a huge divide between what and how teenagers learn at school and what and how they absorb information during their free time – probably due to the digitisation of media. There was certainly no divide when I was at school, and I believe the educational system should be updated to reflect these changes before it is completely outdated. 

Even the acronym ‘STEM’ creates a silo, in my opinion. STEM sounds unrelatable and divisive, suggesting that teenagers today must choose either the arts or the sciences, with no support for those who have an interest in both. 

From listening to teenagers, it is also clear that we live in a world where digital skills are key to any profession. So, we need to approach STEM skills in different ways, to develop an appreciation and understanding of the variety of digital skills that exist in industry, such as in manufacturing, for example. 

SS: How does Teen Tech take a different approach from other STEM initiatives?

MP: Relevance is key for us – we have to be current and up-to- date with what interests teenagers today.

We actively encourage a problem-solving mindset, providing opportunities to develop their skills in their chosen interests, by building networks with people who are already in their industries. 

We try to expand their view of education. They should not view learning as just about getting a job, but also about personal development. Students are given space to ‘fail’, to recognise how they can improve or develop an original idea, they learn how to both give and receive constructive feedback. The Teen Tech Award programme rewards with expert feedback, not just prizes. 

In life, we sometimes have to deal with rejection, but it’s vital that you don’t let this define you. Knowing their worth can be essential when applying for jobs or asking for salary increases and promotions. Last and not least, we help each child understand that the world is a very big place where they matter and can create change. This is fundamentally important for those who are not fortunate enough to have supportive and encouraging parents at home.   

SS: What sparked and sustained your own personal interest in science and tech, and why should others go into these subjects?

MP: I have always been fascinated by the power of science and technology to make a difference. Knowledge in these fields is the tools of the future and I believe as many people as possible need to be able to use these tools. 

Enthusing people about what can be achieved with science, tech, engineering, and digital skills, including all of the ethics that underpin these fields, is really crucial because we all have to be able to make decisions, support and challenge developments.

Knowledge is power, and the more diverse our industry the more it is beneficial to society as a whole, no matter what industry. This is my goal with TeenTech and I hope we are put out of business one day in our goal. 

In the UK, TeenTech helps 14,000-20,000 young people every year, with 75,000 being indirectly supported through teaching resources, students accessing web pages, Teen Tech Awards and Programmes.

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