Carol Vorderman: business and education must work smarter to plug the AI skills gap

The former Countdown presenter was one of the UK’s first ambassadors for women pursuing STEM careers. She speaks exclusively to Raconteur about why she’s collaborating with Amazon to help children learn about artificial intelligence
10. Carol Vorderman 1

Carol Vorderman is something of a paradox. That the UK’s arguably best-known ‘woman in STEM’ found fame as a game show presenter and is almost as famous for her looks as for her intellect might, on the face of it, seem a dire reflection on the nation’s culture.

But Vorderman is not your average TV personality – far from it. The Cambridge graduate, 62, has used her status as Countdown’s mathematical whizz to write educational books, start an online coaching platform, sponsor bursaries and even head a government task force on maths teaching. She’s been awarded an MBE and a string of honorary degrees and fellowships for her work in the field.

More recently, she has come out swinging against the prime minister’s proposals to make maths compulsory in schools until the age of 18, citing the “severe shortage” of teachers and the risk of leaving those who struggle with the subject even further behind.

She is particularly motivated by the desire to improve access to jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths for people like her: women and those from working-class backgrounds. While a STEM-based career is a “joy” in itself, it’s also about empowerment. 

Vorderman explains: “This is where the jobs are going to be and money can be made to change lives – yours and your family’s – which is what happened to me.”

Plugging the AI skills gap

Vorderman’s latest venture is all about preparing young people better for such careers. She will be serving as a judge on Amazon’s new educational programme, the Alexa Young Innovator Challenge, which aims to nurture tomorrow’s computer scientists from diverse backgrounds. The scheme gives students aged 13 to 18 the task of creating a new AI ‘skill’ for Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant that could help to solve a societal problem.

Vorderman praises the programme’s focus on creativity over technical skills. “When I was entering maths competitions, it was about who was the best mathematician, whereas you don’t have to be the best coder in this case,” she says. “Kids are already using [digital media] creatively… so this is just giving them a little nudge on to the coding side, because the enthusiasm is there. Once you’ve got someone enthusiastic about a subject, you’re halfway there.”

But enthusiasm for acquiring AI know-how seems to be sorely lacking in the UK. The number of jobs requiring skills in computer science and/or machine learning is expected to increase by 40% within five years, according to Capital Economics research commissioned by Amazon. Yet there’s already a shortfall in the number of qualified graduates. 

This means that efforts to supply the talent pipeline need to start long before university age. But most respondents to a recent Amazon survey of STEM teachers reported that their access to computer science resources was limited. 

Part of the problem is the “time lag” in translating advances in fast-moving fields such as computer science into secondary school curriculums, according to Vorderman. It’s hard for teaching to keep up with developments, especially when the profession is itself struggling with acute skills shortages

Accessible resources such as her own online learning platform, Maths Factor (which was made available to parents free during the UK’s first Covid lockdown and now costs £4.99 a month), could go some way towards solving the problem. 

“I’m a big believer in good online teaching,” she says. “We’ve taught nearly a million primary school children on the Maths Factor and they’ve been getting fantastic results. This technology can do just as good a job of teaching certain subjects as someone sitting next to you. Coding is probably one of those subjects.”

A career of firsts

Vorderman’s interest in education stretches back a long way. She was brought up in a one-parent household by her mother in the Welsh seaside town of Prestatyn, attending a state school where she qualified for free meals. Being accepted on to an engineering degree course at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge was, she says, her gateway to a life-changing experience. 

Qualifying was a remarkable achievement in itself, given that in the late 1970s “no one from a state school in north Wales went to Oxbridge – it didn’t happen. I’d seen posh people on TV before going to university, of course, but I’d never met anyone like that. I realised quickly that students who spoke with posh voices were no better than anyone else. Few of them appreciated how privileged they were.”

‘I was having to be the first in a lot of things. It meant I had to be super-bright and feisty too’

From that point onwards, the dividing line changed from class to gender. Vorderman was one of the very few female undergraduates on her degree course, but later, when she was working on the construction of the Dinorwig hydroelectric power station in Snowdonia, she was the only woman among 2,000 employees on site. 

It was the kind of laddish workplace that’s often cited as a reason why women drop out of STEM careers, but it didn’t bother her. “My stepfather had been a builder. I’d been on sites most of my teenage years, been sworn at,” she recalls. “Nothing like that even remotely affected me. It was normal.”

But she is glad that things have improved since then. “I was having to be the first in a lot of things,” she says. “It meant I had to be super-bright and feisty too – not argumentative, but strong.”

Promoting female role models in STEM

Although there are more female role models around now than when she was growing up, Vorderman believes that “the mainstream media could do more. It’s not that there’s a lack of women in science and engineering. It’s just that the media focuses constantly on how we look, rather than saying ‘she’s a fine scientist’. That’s largely because the media is still driven by older people with that mindset.”

Vorderman talks with pride about two female friends of a similar age who are pursuing impressive STEM careers: one who oversees the construction of large event venues and another who has worked at Nasa. 

“We’re all members of the generation in which we had to be the unusual ones; we had to keep pushing,” she says. “So all of us love it when we see younger women enjoying [science] and revel in their genuine enthusiasm for it.”

‘We live science. We don’t just talk the talk and get roped in to do a bit of telly’

One of those younger women is Vorderman’s daughter, Katie King, who recently completed a PhD in nanotechnology. Now working for a startup seeking to put laboratories into orbit, King wants to go into space herself. It’s a constant topic of conversation around the dinner table, Vorderman says. “We live science. We don’t just talk the talk and get roped in to do a bit of telly.”

“A bit of telly” might be downplaying her flourishing media career. Alongside a regular slot on BBC Radio Wales, she has appeared on almost every competition on British TV (most recently, Channel 4’s comedy game show Taskmaster) and her views on topical issues are regularly sought by the press. 

But the need to inspire and educate the next generation is never far from the top of Vorderman’s agenda. 

“I want to get more involved with Amazon, because they obviously have the money to put into [education]. I genuinely think they have a lot to offer,” she says. “But eventually I’d like to go into state education policy and exert some genuine influence there. On a macro level, politically, our country has been steered quite badly in many ways. Now there’s an opportunity with new technology to get things right.”