Institute of Science and Technology Virtual Technical Conference 2020

This year the IST conference took place virtually. Angela Beddows tells us more….

On 11th November I attended the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Virtual Technical Conference 2020, which was a replacement for the one that was originally going to take place on the University of York campus in September but had to be moved to 2021 due to the pandemic.

A conference poster showing images of Technicians performing various roles.

The conference opened with a friendly welcome from the IST president and the UKs first person in space, Dr Helen Sharman CMG* OBE FIScT. This was followed by a keynote talk from Professor Anthony Ryan OBE on How Scientists and Refugees Have Turned the Desert Green which was interesting. It showed how IST member Terry Croft, Helen Storey, and technicians from the University of Sheffield have collaborated on a project with refugees in the Zaa’tari refugee camp in Syria. The project enabled them to cultivate and grow their own food in the desert using Polyurethane foam mattresses left over from a 2008 UN project, as a synthetic soil. Soilless production generally uses 80% less water than usual methods, so it is ideal to help yield crops in the desert. 

Technicians Irene Johnson and Dave Bavistock from the University of Sheffield were able to work out how to get the PU foam to work as an artificial soil to enable this project to work. Because Syrian law prohibits anything permanent being built in a refugee camp, they had to build with whatever was to hand. A refugee in the camp, Ahmad Abdelraheem Alzoubi, was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. This involved building 3 demonstrator facilities out of discarded plastic sheets & old tentpoles, including one on the back of a trailer to take the project around the camp and train people. The camp is home to 80,000 people and the project was able to train 1000 people in hydroponics.

This was followed by a presentation called Technical Career Trees consisting of four personal (and varied) career journeys of technicians at the University of York, and how these journeys have informed its Technician Commitment Steering Group and its efforts to develop career pathways at York. It illustrated the many different and varied ways you can develop a Technical Career. Each had an interesting journey to tell talking about apprenticeships; day release courses to earn technical qualifications; taking advantage of opportunities as they arose; mentoring; a career break; moving between institutions and professional registration. Two were vocational and two came through an academic route with a common theme of on-the-job learning and keeping their CPD up to date. 

Dr Simon Breedon outlined how the University of York’s started its Career Pathways initiative, the support received from the National Technician Development Centre (NTDC) and how that work links to their Technician Commitment and Action Plan. Simon explained that this had not been achieved earlier as it is really hard to do with over 250 technicians in over 100 different job titles varying from grades 3 to 8. With help from the NTDC they were able to make progress and feel that they are now ‘at the end of the beginning’ of making it happen.

After a short break there was a presentation on The Benefits of Professional Registration & Developments in Technical Education by Helen Gordon, Tom Cheek & Varshini Rajkumar from the Science Council. I felt this was mis-titled as most of it was about the latter, which seemed mis-aimed since that mostly concerns newcomers to the profession and most people at the conference sounded as if they were well along with their careers. Sadly, the lack of content on professional registration probably did more harm than good. I know the move is to get technicians to take up Professional Registration and here was a perfect opportunity to get people on board. What little was said included details of how the Science Council intends to collect stories on how Registration has helped. They also mentioned how Registration can help in the key areas of career progression and how it can be a good way of staging and helping your CPD, which will help you stand out in the crowd. The bulk of the presentation was about Technical Education, which could assist those who decide to become involved in delivering some of it. 

Tom Cheek is involved with raising the profile of apprenticeships and contributes to the representation of professional standards for apprenticeship developments. He gave an update on apprenticeship reforms and how they fit into the technical workforce. 

Varshini Rajkumar is the T-Level/Higher Technical Qualifications Lead in the Science Council and gave an update on what T-Levels are and where they sit with in the wider secondary education field; the challenges facing T-Levels and their introduction and what Technicians can do in the lead up to that. T-Levels are an alternative to A levels, apprenticeships and other 16 to 19 courses and are equivalent to 3 A levels. If you want to find out more then please see the T-Levels website for a description of what they are, or visit the Education and Training Foundation website, which offers support to staff delivering T-Levels.
There was also an interesting presentation by Allison Hunter, Technical Operations Manager at Imperial College, London, on how Technical Experience over COVID-19 had changed how they operate, within the restrictions imposed by the pandemic lockdown. Like us, their technicians continued to work on campus throughout the lockdown to keep things ticking over. Their approach is similar to that of the University of Leeds as far as I could ascertain. This includes: 2m distancing on lab bench spots, sanitisers and disinfection points and suitable PPE. Allison also said the benefits of lockdown included: increased digital literacy, flexible working hours, more people being able to access meetings / training / CPD as most were now online. She also reported that the NTDC survey had shown an optimistic response and increased collaboration.

The final talk of the day was on Cultural Intelligence: Fixing the Problem of Unconscious Bias by Marsha Ramroop from the Institute of Equality and Diversity Professionals. It was interesting, as I had not heard of this approach before. She explained how Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is “the capability to work and relate effectively with those who are different from you”. Being Culturally Intelligent is understanding that, what is acceptable and familiar to you may not be acceptable and familiar to someone else. This does not mean that either of you is right or wrong; it is just a different perspective. She explained how CQ is a way for us to unpick those perspectives, even if they seem alien to you, and this is a massive part of being inclusive. 

It is a bit hard to summarize, but CQ is made of four parts:

  1. CQ Drive - How do you motivate yourself to want to work and relate to those who are different from you?
  2. CQ Knowledge - What do you know? What do you need to know? Who is not in the room? Who is not represented? Who needs to be there? How much patience do you have for those whose values are different from yours? 
  3. CQ strategy - Mitigating unconscious bias by reflecting before and after interactions with others 
  4. CQ Action - Ultimately people judge you on your behaviour 

The next IST one-day Technician Conference is currently planned to take place on 15th September 2021 at the University of York. 

by Angela Beddows
Lab Tech | Deputy Module Leader | RSci | MIScT | MInstP

*CMG is the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) and is awarded for services to Science and Technology Educational Outreach.

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