Will the future workplace be better for our young scientists?

14 Jan 2019

Students at the 2019 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. Image: Fennell Photography

If the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition has taught John Kennedy anything, it is to trust in the future. The kids have got this.

As ranks of shiny, young, expectant faces trooped past on their way into the 55th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), their school uniforms blurring into a dizzying kaleidoscope of colours, I chuckled inwardly because the penny had dropped on something that was niggling at me.

I read various articles about millennials in today’s workforce feeling misunderstood and maligned as being too entitled, labelled the ‘snowflake generation’ for apparently being easily offended. I’m on the side of millennials, and I personally believe they are clearing up the mess or dealing with the consequences of the generations that preceded them. They are paying the price economically, for one thing. And so what if old farts deem them to be also too politically correct? They have to be, because you were appalling. And at least they are resolved to putting the world to rights.

‘The fertile young minds of Ireland’s science students are truly amazing and vibrant. Just wait until they get into the workforce or create their own companies’

But then I laughed inside because I realised that when those ranks of schoolkids enter the workforce, the millennials themselves may be deemed the old farts. And so, on it goes.

You see, no generation is different from the next. We are all born the same. The only things that are different are the times and the circumstances we are born into economically, technologically and ideologically. Regardless of the times, we all have a responsibility to shape our own destinies and make the world better for those who follow.

The queues of kids entering BTYSTE 2019 – including my two nieces and their friends, who begged to be there – never knew a world without mobile phones or the internet. They have been born into a truly extraordinary time where science fiction of the past is no longer fiction, but a challenge for their imagination, and will require a hard work ethic and self-belief.

But will they be our greatest generation? Who knows? The young people who fought and won World War II, for example, are often referred to as the greatest generation, but it is worth considering, especially in these crazy times, if today’s or future generations would rise to the occasion and do their best. I believe they would.

Now in its 55th year, the BTYSTE has seen generations of young Irish schoolkids demonstrate their love of science. At an Inspirefest event at BTYSTE, BT Ireland managing director Shay Walsh recalled how the idea for the event came to Fr Tom Burke and Dr Tony Scott after they visited a science fair in New Mexico and believed – quite rightly – that Ireland needed something like this to help bring science out of the classroom. “It just got bigger and better,” said Walsh, pointing out that this was BT’s 19th year sponsoring the event.

Around 550 projects were on show at this year’s event across four categories: Technology; Biological and Ecological Sciences; Social and Behavioural Sciences; and Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences. I never get tired of recommending to people that if you want to start your year off on a positive and life-affirming note, get along to the BTYSTE. If you have kids, bring them. Or let them bring you.

Summing up the empathy economy

BT Young Scientist winner Adam Kelly holds his trophy aloft as confetti pours down on him.

From left: Managing director of BT Ireland, Shay Walsh; BTYSTE 2019 winner Adam Kelly; and Minister for Education Joe McHugh, TD. Image: Connor McKenna

This year’s winner was 17-year-old Adam Kelly from Skerries Community College whose project focused on finding the most efficient way possible to simulate quantum computing, a technology that could change the face of the world as we know it.

Siliconrepublic.com was there on day one, day two and day three of the event, and we were seriously impressed by what we saw – even if it was just a sliver of what was on show – from renewable jet fuel to better antibiotic resistance to using artificial intelligence for cervical cancer screening.

The fertile young minds of Ireland’s science students are truly amazing and vibrant. Just wait until they get into the workforce or create their own companies.

But what will they encounter when they get there? Will the millennials have put the world to rights by then and made the workplace more inclusive and diverse? Will this new generation encounter a world that will value and cherish them for just being themselves? Or will things have just gotten more challenging?

From observing the panel discussion – involving PwC’s Heather Melville, who was awarded an OBE for her services to gender equality in business; Karla O’Brien, a transgender woman on the brink of graduation in computer science; and Ciara-Beth Griffin, whose experience of growing up with high-functioning autism led her to create the award-winning app Mi Contact – I fear there is still a lot of work to be done.

Melville spoke movingly about her own experiences breaking into the traditional British corporate world as a young single mother and a black woman. Emphasising that listening is actually the most important skill of them all, she proved that even the most stuck-in-the-mud traditional CEO can listen, be challenged and change. She said that diversity in the workplace must cherish all, no matter the sex, race, age or sexual orientation, and that customers will increasingly only spend money with organisations they feel are diverse.

O’Brien revealed the challenges she has faced finding work in the technology industry, which is supposedly in the midst of a skills crisis and yet some organisations say “we are at full LGBT” as if just ticking a corporate social responsibility (CSR) box rather than employing a human being with something to offer.

Griffin emphasised that workers with autism have a place in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace. As a bright, articulate and very humorous young woman, she challenged the conventional stereotypical view people might have of people with autism. I wanted to stand up and cheer when she challenged the rote learning system of today with its “glorified pub quiz” of a Leaving Cert. She stated how young people want to find their own career path in a way that doesn’t just mean numbly joining the CAO points race but may mean starting their own companies first.

You see, every generation comes with the conceit that it is better than the one that came before it. But, if we want a better world, we need to realise that everyone has something to offer. Young people bring energy and imagination; older people have wisdom and experience, and stories to tell. You just need to listen and make a place for everyone. That is real diversity.

55 years of young scientists testing their mettle add up to a lot of experiences, insights and stories. They are also a barometer of our times. Walsh told of how a painfully shy young transgender student, whose project tackled suicide among LGBTQ teenagers, gained enormous confidence after just a few days at the BTYSTE last year. He gave the poignant example of another young student, whose family came from Kenya, had met the Taoiseach and had put together an immaculate project despite being homeless and living in a hotel.

You see, we all have stories to tell. The road is long. We just need to listen to each other.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years