Mark Tucker may be retired, but he’s not taking a break. His career in Engineering began as a hobby in his teens and evolved into a career as a project manager. Throughout his time in the industry, he’s witnessed the birth of the internet and a boom in technology, and is using the breadth of his experience volunteering as a STEM Ambassador to pass on his knowledge to children, teachers and other volunteers through code clubs and training for the betterment of the STEM industries.
Answering a special edition of the STEM NOW Q&A, Mark discusses his retirement, Micro:bits and his hopes for the future of STEM...
Who or what first inspired your curiosity in STEM?
MT: In 2017 I was working on a client’s site when an email came round asking for volunteers to help with local STEM activities. Although it wasn’t appropriate for me to get involved with those activities, I was intrigued by the idea. I went on-line and found the STEM website.
What was your personal journey into STEM, or your chosen field?
MT: I took up electronics as a hobby in my teens. It was very different in those days – no microprocessors, no personal computers and electronic calculators were only just becoming a reality. I studied Physics with Solid State Electronics at university. My first job was as an electronic design engineer. Later I changed jobs and roles, becoming a systems engineer and software programmer, before eventually moving into project management. I spent the next 25 years as a project manager, but always kept my technical interest.
What is a resource available to young people now that you wish existed in the early stages of your career?
MT: That’s easy, the Internet. Back when I started work if you wanted to know something, you had to find it in a book/magazine or ask someone (face-face or by phone).
You mention that the state of technology has rapidly changed since you were a teenager, do you think the ‘technological revolution’ has provided young people with an advantage when it comes to starting out in Engineering?
MT: In a lot of ways it has, technology is readily accessible and there’s so much you can find out on line. You can find new ideas/products and acquire new knowledge and skills without leaving your seat. It is also a bit of a double-edge sword, there is now so much choice and things change so rapidly that it can be hard to choose a direction (be it for project or career).
Have you encountered/overcome any boundaries along your STEM journey?
MT: During my career there was often pressure to choose either the technical route or the management route – in a large company you couldn’t easily do both. The main issue was that to gain seniority (and a better salary) you either had to be a pre-sales consultant, become a line manager or be a project/programme manager. I chose the latter as it meant I could still be somewhat technical. The pre-sales consultant role never appealed as much of it was bid preparation.
What is something you are working on/have worked on that excites you? Or tell us about a general aspect/topic of STEM that excites you? (This could be a project, study, or an activity either in your career, outside of it or part of the STEM Ambassador programme.
MT: Now I’m retired I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover programming. What has excited me are the great products that are now available for relatively little cost. I think both Micro:bit and Raspberry Pi are unbelievably good value. I’m particularly excited about the projects you can create with Micro:bit which are suitable for younger programmers (9 year-olds upwards). Plus you can combine electronics with your programming (great excuse to get my rusty old soldering iron out of the garage).
What is your favourite project using a Raspberry Pi or Micro:bit? What is a good project for beginners? MT: I enjoyed programming Snakes on a Micro:bit attached to a ZIPtile, but my favourite project to date has to be the Micro:bit pseudo guitar. I was able to build it mostly from bits I had kicking around in my garage. A good project for beginners would be the Micro:bit dice roll. It’s easy to program and simple to understand.
What has been your most memorable moment as a STEM Ambassador and why?
MT: Receiving a thank-you card at the end of last term from the children in the after-school computing club I run. It’s great to know that they are really getting something out of the activities, which will hopefully encourage them to take programming further in the future. I’m delighted that some of the most able and enthusiastic club attendees are girls.
"Dear Mr Tucker, Thank you so much for running Computer Club every Wednesday. It really means a lot. Until we started learning about computers with you, we really didn't know how much you can really do with computers. It really is insanely satisfying. Micro:bit is so much fun because it's joyful to see how much Micro:bits can connect to almost everything! I'm 100% sure that all of us couldn't dream of a better computer teacher than you. From, All the children in Computer Club"
Would you encourage other retired STEM professionals/enthusiasts to become a STEM Ambassador? MT: Yes I would. It’s a great way to pass on your skills and knowledge to a new generation. It also keeps the brain well exercised, which is a good thing in retirement. Also, you can choose what and how much you do. It can be very rewarding when a new project (which you’ve had plenty of fun putting together) is well received by the youngsters.
Why is it important that young people are introduced to STEM?
MT: There is so much that is exciting and stimulating about STEM, but it takes effort to understand and appreciate much of it. Getting young people involved and enthused at an early stage is so important to build their confidence to delve deeper.
How can parents and educators introduce young people to the basic principles of Engineering? MT: Get them interested in science and technology. Watch documentaries, find interesting articles to read and discuss the latest breakthroughs in science and technology. Also look for science/technology events that are coming up. After-school clubs are also great – if you’ve got volunteers to run them. A further suggestion is take out a subscription to a suitable publication – I get the New Scientist every week to keep me up to date.
What advice would you give a young person considering a future in STEM?
MT: There’s lots of exciting jobs out there. Take time to explore different fields and see what excites you. Working for a living is fun if you’re doing a job you enjoy.
Why is diversity and inclusion in STEM fields important?
MT: It’s important particularly in creative endeavours to have different ideas and approaches to problems. Having team members from diverse backgrounds and of different genders helps to broaden the collective mind-set.
In your experience, do you think the way Engineers are represented in media (whether in the news or films/ TV shows) is accurate? MT: It’s better than when I started my career, but there is still a perception that Engineering is a male occupation. If a woman engineer has done something newsworthy, the media still tend to focus first on the fact that she’s a woman before discussing her achievement.
What are your hopes for the future of STEM?
MT: I spent too much time on too many projects chasing good software programmers. Lack of competent software programming resource was so often a constraint on project delivery. I’m hoping that we can get many more young people to study software engineering so that UK industry gets the programmers it needs and they in turn have truly rewarding careers.