STEM’s next generation: ‘Know that there are girls out here rooting for you’

17 Jul 2018

From left: Ian Harkin, Aoibheann Mangan, Taylor Denise Richardson, Anne-Marie Imafidon and Ann O’Dea at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Inspirefest’s Next Generation panellists had strong words of encouragement for young people – particularly young women – interested in STEM.

Anne-Marie Imafidon, the CEO and co-founder of Stemettes with a background in STEM that started at a young age, said of the girls joining her on the Inspirefest stage: “This is why we do what we do. You know, I was joking backstage to each of them that this should be front-page news. We need everyone to hear their stories and know about them.”

The young women Imafidon spoke of were fresh from presenting their own keynotes on the main stage of an international sci-tech event and appeared not at all shook from the experience. The inclusion of Aoibheann Mangan and Taylor Denise Richardson on the Next Generation panel at the conference ensured this discussion wasn’t just going to be about young people in STEM, but with them. Their contributions were heard by an audience of scientists, technologists, business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as groups of young people like themselves who attended the event as part of its Pay It Forward bursary programme.

‘Keep working hard, get an education, believe in yourself’

In her duties as moderator, Inspirefest founder and Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea asked the girls what their advice would be to those young people interested in getting involved with STEM or STEAM.

Richardson, a teenage philanthropist and advocate for STEM, said they should “never give up” and not take to heart those who put down what interests them. “Keep working hard, get an education, believe in yourself and just know there’s girls out here rooting for you.”

Focusing on young girls, Mangan, a European Digital Girl of the Year Award winner, said: “Just do it. The planet won’t survive without women, do what you want to do!”

These words of encouragement hold more weight when you can see what this kind of self-belief and motivation has brought these young women.

In the year she has held her European title, 11-year-old Mangan has been working on a project involving Scratch programming and customisable dolls that kids can use to prepare for difficult hospital visits. “I’ve a meeting next week with Tony Heffernan to get them pushed into the Bumbleances and then some time I’m going to ask can I get them pushed into my local hospital, the Mayo General Hospital,” she said.

Richardson brings star power as a teen STEM advocate, having met Oprah, director Ava DuVernay and astronaut Mae Jemison on her skyrocketing journey – which, she hopes, one day might actually take her to space. She spoke about the support she gets from her mother and grandmother, and also how she doesn’t let her ADHD – what she likes to call “abundantly different, happily divine” – limit her.

“It doesn’t really make me who I am. I’m Taylor Richardson. I like dancing, I like having fun, I like inspiring kids. So I kind of just tell kids to just be yourself. It’s not something that should hinder you but [it will] always be a part of you.”

‘These kids, to me, are role models. Not just to kids but also to me’

Lottie Dolls CEO Ian Harkin took the opportunity to announce a collaboration with Richardson that will see a doll launched in time for Christmas, and he’s interested to work with Mangan on ideas, too. “Last year, we made the decision that every single product that we are doing now going forward is going to be inspired by ideas sent to us by kids,” he explained.

“For us, the most inspiring thing that we’ve ever done is working with kids. This Generation Z that’s come along, they are game-changers for me,” Harkin added. “These kids, to me, are role models. Not just to kids but also to me. They’re inspirational, they have empathy, they are aware of their own weaknesses, they’re not afraid to ask for [help], they know what’s right and what’s wrong – I’m very excited for the future.”

Getting more young people to appreciate STEM the way Richardson and Mangan do will take more than putting them on stage at a sci-tech conference, though. Imafidon, whose Stemettes groups have now engaged 40,000 young women in STEM, said it’s all about convening and multiplying. These young people need events of their own to come together, spark off one another, and then bring that home and spread it in their own communities.

Imafidon also spoke about the need to inject STEM into everyday life and pop culture, such as getting Dot on Eastenders to do a PhD. “We’re doing all kinds of things just to get it out there into the norm. We’re here, we’re not going anywhere. We’re on the buses with you, we’re on planes with you, we’re reading the same magazines as you. So come and join the party.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.