Technology is moving so incredibly fast these days that its hard for me to keep up…which is saying a lot considering I work in a tech/innovation space. Breakthroughs and giant leaps in the way that we do things and the degree of agility and efficiency that is being applied across so many areas is both exciting and inspiring.
Its not all upside though.
The reality of the changing landscape of the skilled (and unskilled) labour market means that a lot of people are getting left behind, most of them from the low socio-economic brackets. The thing with technology; specifically, new technology, is that its generally really expensive. That means that for primary and high schools it is a big investment and as one that dates really quickly, keeping up with the technological Jones’s is often out the question for low decile schools. In New Zealand, that digital divide predominately affects Maori, Pasifika, those in rural areas, and those on lower household incomes.
I sat down with Rab Heath the other day, friend, former coworker, co-founder of OMGTech! and all around awesome human - and we got talking about the role of passion, drive, positive role models and robotics in getting kids across the country fizzing about science and technology.
This is a guy who knows it isn't always easy to reach your goals. When I first met Rab he was sleeping in his car on the roof of our workplace, pulling full time hours on top of multiple other side projects and driving back home to Hamilton in the weekends. Raised by a single mum with very little income, he knows what its like to roll to school shoeless and to not have access to the things that a lot of other kids do. Rab didn’t start school until he was 9 years old, but thats probably ok - considering he took a broken Amiga 500 and restored it to working condition when he was 8. He was lucky (and smart) enough to gain a scholarship to Southwell School in Hamilton when he was 11 years old, and the friendships that he formed there gave him access to homes where computers, games and gadgets were ubiquitous and available to play with. He explained how there were so many things that happened that developed his passion for technology - any one of which could easily NOT have happened - and it changed the course of his life.
Those moments don’t happen for everyone, but they should. If Rab had not found the Amiga 500, he may never have discovered the joy of unmaking and then rebuilding, of watching something you have worked on come back to life. Lack of access to science and technology is probably the single biggest obstacle to getting more kids intrigued and passionate about these areas, and this is especially true for marginalised groups from low income areas.
OMGTech! is a social enterprise that is transforming New Zealand kids ability to access technology regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status. It was the brainchild of Entrepreneur and Vend founder Vaughan Rowsell, and brought into fruition with the help of Rab and Michelle Dickinson (aka Nanogirl) as co-founders, and General Manager Zoe Timbrell. The organisation is all about lighting that spark of excitement in kids, and with an incredible amount of fun stuff packed into workshops around science, technology, engineering and the digital arts; they are doing just that.
Why is it so important? Rab explained how many current projections say 50-80% of our existing jobs will likely be machine driven in 20-30 years. This will directly affect those from poor communities the most. They not only make up the low skill workforce thats likely to be replaced first, but low decile schools are the ones that won’t be able to keep up with the rapidly changing industry, so without the access that wealthier kids get to technology, its only going to get harder to engage these kids.
At the moment New Zealand has the potential to become the innovation centre of the world, being that we have access to such a wide range of cultures and perspectives. But if we don’t use those resources, if the whole range of our people can’t be involved in the process - we are only ever at best a step behind the rest of the world.
He reasoned that this is about showing kids that they aren't stupid, that its ok to learn kinetically, with your hands, and that this is actually an option for them.
“These kids don’t even know that they could want to be a developer, they don’t even know thats a thing”.
OMGTech! workshops help to build the confidence of our rangatahi and let them explore aspects of the different fields in a fun and exciting way. So far, this is achieved through workshops hosting 50 kids at a time. Until now, these workshops have been held in schools, primarily Decile one and two in South and West Auckland. The workshops must have at least 50% female attendance to go ahead, and they use a one-for-one model - which means that the ticket of each child who pays to attend covers the cost of a ticket for a child who wouldn’t be able to afford it. The system has several immediate benefits, not least of which is that it gets youth from remarkably different communities and cultural backgrounds interacting and learning together.
There is so much to learn.
The workshops delve into 3D printing, robotics, coding, unmaking (pulling electronics apart), science (bodies, food/nutrition, chemistry, blowing things up…) and the curriculum is always being refined. The goal is keep everything scalable and open source, so that the curriculum is always available to others who would like to run the programs themselves.
The target age range is 6-12 year olds. This is because, especially for young girls, if they aren’t engaged by around 11 years old it becomes way harder to get them engaged later. The idea is to increase the number of kids (and especially girls) entering high school with a pre-existing passion and interest in these fields. This is where Michelle really excels. She has a legion of young female admirers, whose adoration is based on the excitement and life that she breathes into scientific learning, assisted and reinforced by her alter-ego Nanogirl - the super-heroine scientist making waves on a global level.
From day one, the team have treated the organisation like a startup, even though it is formally a Trust. It is important that it remains agile and dynamic, able to evolve at the rate of new and emerging technologies.
*Side note - I expressed my astonishment at the rate technology is growing and lost Rab off topic for a good five minutes in his excitement about a paralysed woman who was able to fly and control an F-35 Fighter jet with her mind. It was pretty awesome.
OMGTech! has been lovingly created around the basis of community. This is the foundation of the organisation and functions not only as a way to mobilise, but also allows it to contribute to the amazing work that is already being done in this area.
I think it is incredible - and I am not the only one. OMGTech! recently won the Engaging Youth in ICT Award at the CIO awards, where Spark pledged $100,000 on the spot. A result of the relationship with Spark is that the organisation is suddenly in a position where it all becomes a little more sustainable. Looking ahead, Rab is excited for the future. OMGTech! is in the process of creating the first industry led initiative/fund aimed at engaging every decile one-four primary and intermediate school in the country. Instead of 50 kids in one school, imagine 50-100 schools at a time, each bringing 10 kids and 2 teachers to a massive kid conference of awesome technology. Imagine the teachers learning with the kids, collecting skills and inspiration to take back with them to their own schools and connecting them into a community and a platform for sharing that information. Crazy? Maybe. Necessary? 100%.
Because this is not just about getting kids into science. This is about a belief in what New Zealand could become if we endeavour to provide universal access to the industries that are going to shape our future. This is about stepping up and taking our surrounding communities with us.
Casey McLellan is the Community and Events Coordinator at GridAKL