Your future in their hands: IBM’s Schools Day

Alex Diggins reports from IBM’s Schools Day, which mixed high-tech with an old-fashioned treasure hunt: a mission to catch the dastardly ‘Hursley Hacker’

IBM’s Schools Day, part of the tech giant’s 60th anniversary celebrations, aims to encourage secondary schoolchildren to choose STEM subjects for their GCSEs; and, more importantly, it hopes to help them take their first steps into the marvellous landscapes that a career in tech can reveal. Such initiatives are increasingly common as both business and government wake up to the UK’s growing skills deficit in fields like robotics, AI, cybernetics and data analysis.
By some experts’ estimation, facing up to the prospect of a potentially ‘jobless future’ – whereby AI takes over whole employment sectors – is the most important challenge we face as a society. “We need to rethink what we teach, how we teach, and reconsider what kind of intelligence we want to encourage,” cautioned Robert Halfon, MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee. And the education guru Sir Anthony Seldon has warned: “[The Fourth Educational Revolution] has the potential to infantilise or to liberate humanity.”

Hursley Hunt

The bleak forebodings, however, seemed a world away from the excitement I encountered at IBM. Inspiration – not existential threat – was the watchword of the day. I was impressed by how genuine the atmosphere was; the IBM staff exuded a contagious eagerness that couldn’t have been feigned. The 130 kids from 12 schools who attended, some of whom had got up at 5am for the journey, also seemed approving. All those at Wyvern College, the school I shadowed for the day, attacked their task with relish, working through the various clues scattered about the house on a quest to resolve their ultimate goal: the unmasking of the Hursley Hacker.

Wyvern College headed to the escape room first. Here, they pieced clues hidden among the scraps of paper, textbooks, robot parts and whiteboards about the room. The puzzles required communication, collaboration and emphasised lateral thinking – all skills that are as important in the world of work as they are in education, as David Locke, Innovation Champion at IBM, stressed: “We’re looking at ways to increase innovation – gamification of tasks is a very important part of that process. When you’re having fun, you’re being creative without even trying.”

When you’re having fun, you’re being creative without even trying.
– David Locke, IBM

He’s right; the kids were focused on the task and enthused in a way which even the best classroom teacher would struggle to maintain over the course of an entire lesson. The secret, so Katie Bruce, Careers leader at Wyvern told me, was that these children were at the perfect age for the tasks: old enough to be excited by the adventure, but not so mature that they looked askance at attempts at ‘organised fun’.

Schrödinger’s chocolate coin

Next up, our intrepid band of detectives headed to IBM’s basement museum. Here the pupils were set a coding challenge, answering cryptic questions which allowed them to cross-off candidates and work their way ever closer to the mysterious hacker.

Lastly, they were let loose on the upper floors which showcased some of IBM’s most innovative tech. There was a demonstration of the cutting-edge quantum computer whose mechanics were explained with the help of chocolate coins. Could a chocolate coin be eaten and simultaneously remain uneaten? Sadly not – as the rapidly diminishing supply attested. The IoT hardhat and vest captured the imagination as well: pupils were invited to bash a dummy wearing a hardhat with a baseball bat; vital statistics on impact speed, force and heartbeat flashed up on the screen behind. So impressed were the pupils that they felt the need to whack the dummy again and again with increasing gusto.

We moved onto the Maker Space, containing 3-D printers, mini-robots and AI-connected T-shirts (which flashed messages programmed by their wearers’ phones). By this point, the original ambition of catching the hacker had mostly been abandoned as the kids got stuck in, chatting to the friendly IBM staff and tinkering gleefully. And if the eventual unmasking of the culprit may have owed more to old-fashioned eavesdropping than higher-tech methods, then that’s perhaps no bad thing.

The future: perfect?

It can be too easy to get caught up in gloomy predictions about our future and tech. We are bombarded by stories that bemoan children’s addiction to their devices, whilst also being told that they must be taught to be ‘digital natives’ to avoid a desperate scrabble in an apocalyptic ‘jobless future’. While it may have only been one day, on the evidence I saw at IBM’s Schools Day, both narratives are overcooked.

The pupils treated the tech on display neither over-reverently or carelessly; rather, they interacted with it with energy, high spirits and plenty of giggling and gossiping – that is, as kids. We should not ignore warnings about skills deficits or AI threats, but we shouldn’t forget that our best defences against those threats are what I saw in abundance that day: our capacity to wonder, to delight and to play. If we keep those ideas at the forefront of our thinking, then the future – as far as I can tell – is in good hands.