Friday, April 10, 2015

Encouraging the Next Generation

Recently, some of the people where I work have started a weekly writing prompt in order to get people to blog more often. This week's topic is “How do we involve the next generation of young minds?” and was inspired by two of my co-workers building quadcopters with a group of students in the northern part of the state.

This is a very open topic and very difficult to cover in a way that is less wordy than a copy or War and Peace (or at least your average work by Stephen King). However, I think it can be approached by breaking it down into a number of subjects which need to be addressed.

That being said, let's begin.

Start Them Early

The truth is that the earlier you start to instill curiosity and creativity in people, the easier it is to get them to continue on that path. There are a number of ways to do this, but if you're looking for ways to get a small child started, Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, etc are really a wonderful way to get the ball rolling. They offer nearly endless ways to combine pieces creatively, are tactile (which helps a lot of people, children or not. Never underestimate the value of physically building and handling something), and are generally fairly affordable.

Realize that not everything has to involve circuitry and code. Even things like basic woodworking projects can help instill creativity and the engineering mindset. I've built everything from birdhouses and toolboxes to actual buildings while I was growing up and I learned something valuable from every project.

As they get a little older, introduce them to things like crystal radio kits, 130-in-1 experiments kits (yes, they still make those), snap circuits and even simple programming languages like Scratch and Logo. A little later still get them involved in writing code on something like a RaspberryPi (it's fairly inexpensive and if you somehow manage to botch the os, just re-flash the SD card and start over. You can even extend it in order to interact with hardware). Tangoes are also a wonderful, inexpensive tool for teaching spatially related problem solving.

You want things that are simple to get a beginner's grasp of yet versatile enough to keep their attention after they master the basics and, most importantly, make them want to learn even more.


A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”
- Rabindranath Tagore

Logic is a very important part of being successful in technology fields. However, there is another part of the equation that is often overlooked – creativity. You really do need both the ability to think your way through a problem as well as the ability to look at a problem from a completely different angle than other people at times.

We need to foster not only logical thought, but also appreciation of and involvement in the arts. I would almost argue that the type of art doesn't matter nearly as much as being involved. Painting, drawing, writing, music, theater, and countless others – all of these things exercise your brain in ways that simple logic based problem solving doesn't.

On the logical side, we need to encourage the next generation of technical people to cultivate the skills to look at situations objectively, come up with a set of possible answers, and then evaluate or work through them (revising their general assumptions as they uncover more information) until they reach a conclusion. This is the time for measured experimentation instead of just wildly poking at a problem until something happens (though, admittedly, sometimes poking at the problem is necessary in order to uncover behavior).

Encourage the next generation to ask questions. That's not to say that you should spoon feed them the answers since guiding them through the discovery process is both an extremely effective way of teaching and often fun for everyone involved. However you do it, you should encourage them to ask the “whys” and “what ifs”.

Continuing in the vein of asking questions, foster the questioning of authority. If someone says “You can't do that” they should ask WHY. If it's because doing that thing is dangerous, that's one thing. If it's just because they don't think it can be done or because of other foolish reasons (“getting above your station”, “that's not something that proper girls/boys do”, etc), they should be encouraged to CHALLENGE IT.

We are, among other things, professional troublemakers. We create and change current reality as a part of our jobs. It's what we do. Innovation is inherently disruptive. Embrace that; don't try to stomp it out of the next generation.

Encourage reading. I can't stress this enough. Fiction, non fiction, philosophy – just read. It exposes you to different voices and approaches from your own. It's literally a different view on the world, and being exposed to that will help you grow.

Quick Feedback, Small Victories

Make initial victories easy to attain. This is especially true for younger children. Defeat is frequently demoralizing. Starting off with a victory encourages people to continue. It doesn't matter if it's just making a ball bounce on the screen. Give them something that provides near instant feedback that they have done something with a real, visible result.

As they progress, keep feedback loops tight even though the difficulty of what they are doing increases with time. Yes, I realize that this sounds a lot like Agile practices.

Make it Safe to Fail

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
- Thomas A. Edison

Failure, both professionally and personally, is an occasional fact of life. No matter what we try or how hard we work, there are times when things just won't happen the way we want them to.

The problem is that we have stigmatized failure to such a degree in this society that some people are afraid to even try because they might fail. This needs to stop.

Teach people that it's okay to fail on occasion. That's not to say that we should excuse laziness, but re-enforce the idea that failure occasionally happens, treat it as a learning experience, and teach others not to fear making a mistake.

Access to Tools

It may not occur to a lot of us in this field that not everyone is as well off as we are from an economic standpoint. Not everyone has ready access to the equipment needed to learn various technical skills. This is especially true in both poorer urban and rural areas.

Access to programing tools (IDEs, etc) has become considerably cheaper thanks to open source tools and educational/community licenses offered by companies like JetBrains and Microsoft. However, for some people, computers are still an expense that they can't justify (even if they are much cheaper than when I started learning to program).

That's not to mention the expense of things like quadcopter kits. Some of the things that you need access to for some projects are simply out of reach for a number of individuals as well as some school districts without outside help.

Access to Mentors

When I started out, I didn't have any mentors to help me learn how to code. The internet wasn't an option (yes, dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we had to walk to school uphill both ways). I had never even met or spoken to a professional software developer until I was in college. In fact, the only other people I knew who wrote code were a few friends in basically the same situation as myself.

It would have been much easier and a lot less discouraging if I had had access to mentors (even online) instead of having my only resources when I started out be the manual for a TRS-80 color computer and the occasional code sample in magazines borrowed from our very small public library (I told you that dinosaurs roamed the Earth at the time).

If you want to encourage the growth of a new generation of creative and technical people, you have to literally be there to encourage and guide them. Answer questions on the internet, make yourself available to schools/after school clubs and programs, and generally be a good community member.

Parental Involvement

This is the really difficult one. In order to encourage young people to go into technology based careers, their parents have to be positively involved. They can't just treat the computer as a way to babysit their child or, possibly even worse, view everything that their child does, no matter what it is, as simply “playing on the computer” like my parents did (which, I might add, included programming homework in college).

Keeping up momentum when it feels like nobody cares or you are being actively discouraged is extremely difficult. Not everyone is as hard headed as I am.

Parents don't even have to be experts in the field. They just have to be positive influences. Be curious about what your child is doing, encourage them, have them show off what they're doing to you a bit. Be a cheerleader. It's important.

Show Me The Money

Show people that there is a (generally) fun, well paying job doing work in this field and that it doesn't matter if they're a girl or a boy or even what socio-economic background they come from as long as they work at it. After all, it's important to be able to do things like pay your bills, go on vacation, and buy sandwiches.

As I said, this is by no means an easy problem, and this is only the short list of things that can be done to help, but it's a start and even if you can only manage a few of them that's better than the alternative.

Current mood: calm

Current music: Murray Head – One Night in Bangkok

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