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Fast Tracking Innovation in STEM Inspiration

Published: Mar 13, 2020 5 min read

James Richards

Fast Trackers programme

Winning the Innovation in STEM Inspiration award, the Fast Trackers programme was praised for its engaging and comprehensive mix of activities. James Richards, Engineering Capability Manager at Network Rail, tells us more about how the programme was put together.

The Fast Trackers programme has defined a new benchmark in award-winning early engagement programming that was developed as a wholly transferable and scalable framework that can be readily adapted and adopted by anyone.

Fast Trackers was first mooted as a concept by a few likeminded National Collaborative Outreach Programmes (NCOPs), with a vague brief to deliver, “a HS2 inspired, 2-day residential activity for 16-19yr olds from areas of low-HE uptake and to effect a change in attitudes to Higher Education”.

Access to professionals

Aware of the benefits of multiple meaningful engagements, I developed the concept to add carefully framed HE and employer visits, such that the learning outcomes for each engagement would contribute toward the successful completion of a broad engineering challenge. Throughout the programme, it would be necessary to give the students access to as many professionals as possible, so that they had the opportunity to learn about the various learning and career pathways.

Where Fast Trackers differentiates from other programmes is in its depth and breadth of collaborations, the D&I themes and the independent validation and accreditation provided by the Industrial Cadets.  Drawing these elements together into a single framework programme has resulted in impressive changes in attitude toward HE for our students; not only are they more aware of the options available to them, but they feel more confident in making these critical career and academic choices.

When referring to the diversity of collaborations, in the first instance there is the industry partnership between Mott MacDonald and Network Rail and the academic partnership between several NCOPs. But, beyond these primary relationships lie an enormous number of invested stakeholders, including AECOM, Alstom and HS1; inspirational supporters like Katie Kelleher (aka Katie Cranes); the professional institutions, i.e. IMechE, PWI and ICE; and, the academic institutions that run the HE days.

A relaxed yet focused environment

From the outset, we set the students some guided self-study to prepare them for the programme finale, the engineering challenge; this establishes expectations and requires them to develop their own broad understanding of the railway as an integrated system.  In addition, the students’ attitudes to HE are benchmarked and then re-evaluated at various stages throughout the delivery, which enables us to ascertain how well our messaging is embedding and it is this attention to detail that enables us to make ad-hoc adjustments to the delivery to optimise the learning outcomes.

The learning is guided via workbook and is not technically challenging as it has been designed to inspire creative thinking, which allows all participants to add their contribution and eliminates exclusion.
Furthermore, maintaining an informal setting builds student confidence and encourages engagement with our small army of volunteers, which is made up of apprentices, graduate engineers and senior leaders (all of which are STEM Ambassadors).  This approach solicits pertinent questions like “how much do you earn?”, which is an important consideration for many.

This relaxed yet focussed environment sees the students at their best when it comes to engaging with the engineering challenge, designing a high-speed railway.  The challenge is split in two requiring two sub-teams - ideally from different colleges - to work together; this is normal practice in industry and further develops communication skills and confidence.  One sub-team will design the railway line complete with rolling stock and maintenance facilities, the other will be in charge of a landmark hub-station redevelopment.  Both teams will have to consider and address the respective environmental factors, sustainability issues and the wants and needs of the whole stakeholder and user group network, which is no mean feat – and they do all this in just 6 hours!

Presenting a solution

The finale of the programme sees the students present their high-speed railway solution as a full team.  Many of the students will not have any public speaking experience, so this ask can be exceptionally daunting.  Nevertheless, with support, coaching and practice, every student manages their nerves to deliver their solution to an executive grade judging panel and in front of a packed university lecture theatre.  It is a very exciting finale and the sense of achievement is palpable.  The students are rewarded with an awards ceremony worthy of a far more prestigious setting and we celebrate a number of achievements including: Best Speaker, Most Improved, Best Leader, Rising Star and Inclusion Champion.  Of course, all of the students are able to evidence the learning outcomes that underpin their Industrial Cadets awards and certificates too.

As can be seen, success is not the product of a single-minded activity, it is the result of a meticulously choreographed and wonderfully diverse collaboration, which gives the students such a rich and meaningful milestone experience.

Finally, to give credit where it is due, the Fast Trackers pièce de résistance is that the whole endeavour is developed, programmed and delivered entirely by graduates with less than 6 months industry experience and who are all fabulous STEM Ambassadors!


STEM Inspiration Awards 2020

Applications for the 2020 STEM Inspiration Awards are now open. If you know of a teacher who has gone the extra mile to develop their skills and engage their pupils with STEM subjects, we'd love to hear about them. You can nomination yourself or others for an award and can find a full list of awards categories here. Applications are open until 6 April.