Aidan Knowles, an ethical hacking engineer at IBM, describes what is involved while volunteering with the Engineers Ireland STEPS programme. An active volunteer for more than a year, Knowles is well placed to discuss the benefits of engaging with the nationwide programme

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give”.

The STEPS programme, a unique STEM initiative working with schools across Ireland, is offering volunteers a chance to share their expertise, knowledge and experiences to inspire the next generation of innovators.

What is STEPS?

STEPS encourages primary and post-primary students to explore the world of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), while promoting engineering as a study and career choice. To accomplish this goal, STEPS manages a vast network of school visits and career events around Ireland featuring vetted volunteers who are professionals in the STEM space.

Originally an acronym for Science, Technology and Engineering Programme for Schools, the classroom-engagement programme is now referred to as STEPS.

STEPS is run by Engineers Ireland and supported by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Department of Education and several corporate sponsors including ARUP, ESB, TII, Eirgrid, Xilinx and IBM.

At second-level, STEPS is part of the SFI-managed Smart Futures programme.

My volunteer experience

I have been volunteering with STEPS for more than 12 months. Typically, I will volunteer every month or so during the school year – averaging about six to eight talks per school year. I first heard about the programme when the STEPS team came to present to staff at my company, IBM, who is a corporate sponsor.

After a meeting the team at this session, and learning about the goals of their STEM initiative, I was committed to volunteering. Through the programme, I have spoken and engaged with students at both primary and secondary schools.

During these school visits, I share a little about my journey to becoming an ethical hacking engineer at the IBM Ireland Lab, give a general introduction of computer technology (past, present and future) and discuss secondary school, university and career choices.

As an audience and participants, students are always interested, optimistic, enthusiastic and have plenty of questions to ask. Typically, a STEPS primary school visit will last about one hour, whereas a secondary school visit will usually be a little shorter at around 40 minutes. The longer visit in primary schools allow for STEPS volunteers to engage the class in an age-appropriate educational activity of their choosing.

For my primary school activity, I introduce students to cryptography using a caesar cipher cryptography exercise. In this exercise, the class are challenged to employ the caesar cipher – a very simple early form of encryption used in Roman times – to translate a series of ‘secret messages’, such as quotes from family-friendly movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

This is a great activity as it encourages the students to work together using their critical and analytical thinking, while also learning about encryption technologies. Often the class is intrigued by the mysterious, secret side to the exercise. Once the class has successfully figured out the secret messages using their special decrypter rulers, we always have a lot of fun guessing which famous movies the revealed quotes are from.

It is especially rewarding to share your story, passion and experiences in STEM with young people who are making critical decisions in their lives, thinking about potential secondary-school subjects and CAO choices. The STEPS programme also helps to address and highlight subject areas that are not currently on Irish schools’ curriculums, such as my own field of computer science.

For STEPS volunteers, the initiative is also a great platform to practice your own personal public speaking skills, particularly to a non-technical audience. If you can communicate clearly and interact with young people, you can engage successfully with any audience who may meet in your professional career.

Inspiring the next generation

One thing that has struck me while visiting classrooms in Ireland is that our students are exceptionally engaged with technology, more now than ever; even comparable to just five or ten years ago.

For my first ever STEPS session, I visited a group of fifth class students in a local primary school. When preparing for the visit, I included a photo of a disassembled iPad in the presentation; thinking it would be a fun mini challenge for the class to identify what it was.

On the day of the school visit, I presented the picture of the deconstructed iPad parts and electronics to the young students. “Does anyone know what this is?” I asked. Immediately, the entire class’ hands shot up. To my surprise, everyone was able to identify the Apple product immediately – despite its state of disassembly.

As a nation, we are remarkably fortunate that Ireland has emerged as a leading European hotbed for major multinational companies; all seeking educated, highly skilled graduates in the tech, science and engineering disciplines. In this context, interested and motivated students – our professionals and leaders of tomorrow – have among the best opportunities ever available to graduates in Ireland.

With the right support and guidance in key developmental and educational phases, the potential is here for these future generations to have tremendously successful, diverse and high-paid STEM careers at home and abroad.

STEPS volunteers, through school visits and career events, play part of the role in helping to further cultivate and contribute to this prosperous climate of interest, commerce and success.

If we, as industry professionals and role models, can help young people harness their early passion, interest and potential in STEM – like the brilliant fifth class students’ enthusiasm in recognising and examining the parts of the deconstructed iPad – we will give the next generation the right encouragement and best foot forward to succeed.

Becoming a STEPS volunteer

Once you have been approved as a volunteer, STEPS makes it easy to get started and get comfortable as a role model.

The programme offers induction, support and frequent face-to-face workshops for new and existing volunteers around Ireland. These workshops are a great way to brush up on your presenting skills and meet other STEPS volunteers from a diversity of backgrounds and careers.

STEPS also equips you with all the resources you need to be a successful school speaker – online training videos, communication tips, sample presentations, activities and important reference material including the volunteer handbook, volunteer policy and child protection guidelines. The friendly support staff are always available via email and phone to give help and guidance.

Signing up to do a school visit or career fair is simple. All volunteering activity is managed through the central online SmartSTEPS system. Using this web browser-based application, STEPS volunteers can register for available school visits and career events, and view past and present commitments. Similarly, teachers can also use this platform to request a visit from a volunteer.

Once a volunteer registers to visit a school, they receive the contact information of the STEPS representative in the school. The volunteer then can contact this named individual directly to discuss and arrange a mutually suitable date and time for a visit.

Why you should get involved?

Volunteering is great way to give back to your local community while developing your own skills. Right now, there over 400 schools around Ireland requesting a STEM school visit from a STEPS volunteer. There are more schools and career events than available STEPS volunteers, so the team are always eager to have new helpers onboard.

The only requirement to get involved with STEPS is to be an engineer over 18 years old residing in Ireland.

If you are interested in volunteering but do not feel comfortable presenting alone in your first STEPS session, you can also request to buddy up with an experienced volunteer to show you the ropes. Using the buddy system, you can organise, plan and conduct a school visit together.

As an added bonus, STEPS volunteers receive Continuous Professional Development (CPD) credits for their contributions. Applications for new volunteers are processed twice a year and the next closing date for applications is February 17, 2017.

Interested in volunteering with STEPS? More information about the programme and how you can apply is available here.

If you are a teacher, and are interested in having a STEPS visit at your school, register here.

About the author
Aidan Knowles is an ethical hacking engineer at IBM in Ireland. Specialised in delivering application security insights, Aidan’s role at IBM encompasses penetration testing, secure engineering, consulting and threat modelling. He is a regular participant at industry events as well as a frequent volunteer in education and awareness initiatives. Aidan holds a BA in Journalism from the Dublin Institute of Technology and a MSc in Computer Science from University College Dublin. O'RiordanTechCPD,education,IBM,STEM,STEPS,volunteering
“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give”. The STEPS programme, a unique STEM initiative working with schools across Ireland, is offering volunteers a chance to share their expertise, knowledge and experiences to inspire the next generation of innovators. What is STEPS? STEPS encourages...