Lovelace, leaves and learning: how Network Rail inspires the next generation

Computer science class

As we celebrate National Careers Week, STEM Ambassador Kirsty Ivanoski-Nichol tells us about how she and Network Rail are breaking down the barriers to inspire young people into STEM careers.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ada who loved machines…
One night, Ada went to a ball. There she met a grumpy old mathematician named Charles Babbage.  Ada was a brilliant mathematician herself and the two soon became friends…
“What if we built a machine that could make more complicated calculations?” she said…
”What if this machine could play music and show letters as well as numbers?”
Ada wrote the first computer program in history.

- Extract from Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls

Two years ago I read about Ada Lovelace to my daughter at bedtime, and hearing Ada’s story lit a spark of excitement in her. That year on the school’s Hero Day she went as Ada. At eight years old, she quite rightly sees no boundaries to where her interests might take her in a future career. At Network Rail, my colleagues and I are working hard to challenge and remove the barriers that prevent many organisations achieving a better gender balance. 

That’s one of the reasons why I am the early engagement lead for Network Rail’s gender equality network, Inspire. In my day job, I get to work right across the business and find out about the different things we do in the industry, so I know how many exciting opportunities we have for the next generation. 

As an industry there is no doubt we need a diverse team; we’re so much the richer for different opinions and ways of working. Gender equality is a huge part of achieving this diversity, and getting the next generation interested in STEM subjects is crucial if we’re to continue to improve our business. 

Last summer, my team used some of their volunteering leave to run Network Rail’s first STEM summer camp. We had 20 local students aged between 11 and 14 visit our Head Quarters in Milton Keynes for the day, where they took part in STEM activities including a model bridge build, project management role play, and building towers from spaghetti and marshmallows. The feedback from the students and their parents was entirely positive, with some asking if they could book on immediately for 2019!

Determined to make our 2019 engagement even better, I was trained as a STEM Ambassador in November of last year. Whilst at the amazing National STEM Learning Centre I learned how to use the specially-developed engineering challenge based on the “leaves on the line” problem Network Rail faces every autumn. 

Designed for older primary school children, the set encourages them to ask the question about why leaves might cause a problem and get hands-on and messy in creating a mixture they can spread on the rails. 

It was great to try it out and a lot of fun, and – as someone who isn’t an engineer by title – made me really think about how an engineering approach can help us solve any problem. My solution attempted to solve all our adhesion problems with a combination of sand, washing up liquid and hair gel! 

In teaching my colleagues how to use the set and in visiting schools myself, I can’t wait to play my part in creating inspiring early engagement for the rail industry... the possibilities are endless for the next generation of rebel boys and girls, if we just remove the barriers.

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