Learning how to Be The Difference

04 November 2020

To celebrate This Is Engineering Day 2020 and their wonderful theme of ‘Be The Difference’, we are publishing a series of articles where three students tell us, in their own words, about navigating their way through education to am exciting career in engineering, and the difference their teachers made to shaping their future choices.

When we think back to our school days, we can all recall that one teacher who inspired us, believed in us, and made the difference to how we approached a particular subject. It was someone we probably took for granted at the time, only to realise afterwards how amazing they were.

I hope this article makes you think of someone who has been the difference to you.

The teacher: Diane Dowling. The student: Salome Tirado-Okeze.

Hi Salome! How did you get into computing?

Salome: When I was living in Spain, we had CDs with educational games on and my Dad would always let me use them on his laptop to play music, games and challenges, it was hours and hours of fun. I remember finding it so impressive that everything was on this one disk. How things have changed - my Dad’s laptop was so heavy, and you couldn’t put it on your lap because it heated up so much.

When I was at secondary school in the UK, we studied ICT which was just powerpoints and excel spreadsheets, but Computer Science at A Level was so different and exciting. We started with gaming and coding, which felt like solving riddles. I have always loved solving problems, so it amazed me that these were things you could do with computers.

And how about you Diane?

Diane: I started my working life as a programmer and worked in many different ‘tech’ roles progressing more and more into management positions and further away from the hands on tech that I loved. I decided to step off the escalator for a while and signed up with VSO who sent me to teach IT in Guyana (South America). I loved it! Back in the UK, I gained my teaching qualification and a job at a large sixth form college.

What was it like to work together?

Salome: Like I mentioned above, up until A level, we had never been taught practical computer science. At GCSE, the subject was quite new so the teacher really left us to our own devices, as they had specialised in ICT which was the old subject.

Coming to college and having Diane as a teacher was completely different. She was passionate about the subject, and she always emphasised how important it was to learn things by doing. I felt so lucky I could have started the subject at GCSE, but doing A Level computer science with Diane made all the difference. You didn’t see many female computing teachers. When me and my friend got to college, we were the only two girls doing the subject, and both of us were like ‘wow’ when we found out we were being taught by Diane. She had so much structure in her lessons and dedication to the subject, we had an immediate respect for her. She really cared about our computing education.

Diane: Salome joined a class that was full of nerdy boys (said with affection!) and immediately stood out as a top student. In programming lessons she rarely asked for help, preferring to work through problems on her own and to learn from her mistakes (and error messages)! It was fortunate that Salome was not the only girl in the class and having her sit next to another bright girl was a good decision. They worked very well together sharing ideas about how to solve tricky problems and supporting each other in programming work.

What were the main challenges you found when you studied computer science Salome?

Salome: Computer science, especially at A level, is a memory game. There are so many complex things you have to learn, and you don’t have a lot of time. Planning my time was so important, which Diane’s structure really helped with. It was an intense period, but I went to workshops at school, and knew that I could email Diane any time I was unsure about anything. We made sure we made the most of the teaching we had.

Diane: I can’t remember anything specific that Salome found too difficult. As a student, she understood that she needed to work hard to master tricky content and was always willing to stay behind or attend workshops when she needed extra help. Providing individual feedback to students so that they can learn from their mistakes is essential to allow them to progress in their learning.

What have you gone on to do after leaving school Salome?

Salome: I am now doing a degree apprenticeship with PWC at Leeds University, studying CS with digital technology solutions. I also get the opportunity to do 12 week placements in the summer, which I’m really looking forward to.

I’m not sure what the future looks like. All I know is, I don’t want to be a software developer. I want to use CS in ways people haven’t really thought of yet to solve issues that affect people every day. We know that technology can’t be used to solve every problem, but I want to be able to use the skills I’ve learnt to help people. I don’t know what yet, but I just know that I don’t want to sit and code all day, I want to learn every skill I can so that one day I can really help people and make a difference.

It’s so inspiring to hear about your plans, Salome! Are student journeys like these something that motivates you to teach, Diane?

Diane: Teaching computer science to young people is a great privilege. It is a challenging subject, but the delight in students faces when you help them to “get” something difficult is so rewarding. My greatest satisfaction is from students who hadn’t planned a career in tech who finish year 12 with a firm decision to apply to study computer science at uni or to secure a degree apprenticeship.

Thanks to both of you!