Sheffield inventor goes mobile to raise digital skills

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WHEN Sheffield inventor Richard O’Neill began to read with increasing concern data showing how lacking British workers were when it came to digital skills, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Mr O’Neill, a resident of Sheffield for more than 22 years, conceived and established a mobile science laboratory which encourages local children to learn more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects helping to reduce the shortage of skilled STEM workers in the UK.

Dubbed Moti-Lab, this portable science lab to is designed to help make learning science and maths fun for children and to aid teachers in delivering effective science and maths lessons.

The project is already working with universities and manufacturers and Mr O’Neill hopes to expand the services internationally.

Mr O’Neill used his experience as a successful landscape designer creating interactive landscapes for young children and his desire to build on Sheffield’s proud industrial heritage, to create the new social enterprise.

More than 90 per cent of jobs will require digital literacy in the near future and with small companies growing twice as fast when they have a strong web presence.

Using interactive and intuitive gutters, switches and wheels, powered by water or balls, Moti-Lab is helps experiential learning through play and encourages children to learn through their own investigations rather than through ‘delivered’ science lessons alone.

The entrepreneur is now working with Sheffield Hallam University to create teaching resources to accompany his portable ‘lab’ and following the high surge in initial interest, Mr O’Neill wants to build awareness of his invention.

Mr O’Neill said: “In a 2015 study of 1,500 UK primary school teachers, only 12 per cent said they felt confident in delivering science. This lack of confidence can lead to an array of problems, such as disengagement from science at an early age.

“How can we expect teachers to be inspiring STEM educators if we don’t give them the necessary tools and training?

“This lack of inspirational STEM education can also lead to significant problems in the job market, with the UK having a shortage of 40,000 skilled STEM workers every year.

“With Sheffield having such a rich history in engineering, we need to do all we can to keep this going for future generations – and I want to play a part.”

Mr O’Neill said he was massively supported and aided in his pursuit by Sheffield’s Google’s Digital Garage.

Having popped in after spotting it on the street by chance, he quickly found the benefit of working one-to-one with an experienced trainer who provided free teaching in essential digital skills and ways to make the business more visible.

He enrolled on a search engine optimisation and marketing course and saved hundreds of pounds after the Garage advised him how to use Facebook as an effective and free way to communicate with teachers.

He said: “You can draw many parallels between what Google is trying to achieve in teaching people digital skills and what we are trying to do with Moti-Lab.

“What’s great is that I hadn’t realised how much free help is available from Google.

“I was already using Google products and was confident with my digital skills, but the help I’ve gained from the Google Digital Garage to promote my business has not only given me better exposure but also saved me a lot of money – two vital factors if you want to run a successful business.”

Feedback from previous Digital Garages has shown that 88 per cent of businesses that attended a training session have changed the way they run or promote their business online.

68 per cent of businesses surveyed said they’ve seen positive results after undergoing the free training – in increased sales, bookings, web traffic or social media following.

Anyone interested can simply pop in to the Sheffield Digital Garage at 15 Barker’s Pool, Sheffield S1 2HB and sign up for workshops.