When I was a kid, my friends and I would go to some of the local electronics shops and look the wares over. Instead of career fairs telling us about electronics, we looked over the actual goods. There were many smaller shops back then, carrying everything from TVs, to hi-fi's, to ham radios. We would haunt the places .
It was an education looking things over, reading the specs, and getting a chance to try things out. Several of my friends went into engineering partly because of that experience. I went into engineering, too.
Nowadays, there are all kinds of tears and moaning about how the U.S. has a shortage of engineers, and how we need to make engineering more approachable and fun. That's why we see career fairs aimed at getting more kids interested in the subject. In fact, in Pennsylvania, I understand it is relatively easy to get free tuition, if you want to study one of the technical subjects that have been designated as being crucial to the technical infrastructure of the state. For instance, they have the Science, Mathematics, & Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship, which provides a cash award, full tuition, a book allowance, and post-graduation career opportunities. The problem is getting students to become interested in these subjects in the first place.
If you want your kids to become interested in engineering, I suggest bringing them to a place like Best Buy. If looking at all the gadgets and marvels they have on display there doesn't get your offspring interested in technology, nothing will.
Just as when I was a kid, stores like Best Buy put the technology right into your hands. No need to press your nose against your computer screen, as if it were a store window, while you browse web sites that just show pictures and dry specifications. Best Buy puts it right into your hands.
I spent some time in the Best Buy in Whitehall, Pennsylvania. There were rows and rows of hot devices like iPad 2's on display, often with kids hovering around them, while families listened to sales representatives explaining how they could connect their iPads to their flat-screen TVs. No one tried to shoo the kids away from the devices. They were as welcome as can be.
You should have seen the gleams in those kids' eyes. One of them showed me an app that I didn't realize was available for an iPad. It was a version of Spice, or "Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis." Of all things! This approximately 10-year-old child probably didn't know the first thing about designing a circuit, but he knew how to access the program on the iPad. With time, he probably would have started figuring out how to use the program. Who knows what that encounter in the Best Buy, between a 10-year-old child and a display iPad, will mean in 20 years?
Maybe it will mean the kind of programs that a teacher of the developmentally disabled told me about. He showed me some apps that are specifically designed to help overcome some of the communication difficulties that severely autistic children have, using the extreme portability, convenience, and computing power that today's new tablet computers have. What provides the spark that inspires someone to program such useful, noble inventions? Maybe it was that trip to the Best Buy, hand in hand with Dad or Mom.
These children, gathered around the newest laptop or tablet computer, pressing every button and marveling at the results, are the engineers of tomorrow, I thought to myself. We don't need a career fair. We have Best Buy.
I want to thank the wonderful people at the Best Buy in Whitehall for the time they let me spend with them. Thank you to James, Beverly, Patrick, Jason, Josh, Georgina, John, and all the many other wonderful people I had the pleasure to meet. You guys should be given a Department of Education award for being a beacon of technology to young people everywhere.
(Disclosure: I don't work for Best Buy, though I once did, I'm proud to say. I did not receive any compensation from them to write this. None of the people I met in Best Buy knew I was going to write this blog about them.)
Rich Krajewski is an electronics engineer, editor and amateur-radio operator WB2CRD. His blog focuses on the profession of engineering.
I know it isn't the place it used to be, but RadioShack is still a good place. Many of them sell Vex robots and they're starting to sell Arduino's. They still have a smattering of components and, though not the breadth and depth of BestBuy, a good selection of consumer electronics.
The only downside to RadioShack is that sometimes browsing seems a little awkward. My local store isn't well trafficked and the sales people tend to watch like lonely hawks, hoping I'll buy something and not just look.
Hi! This is great to hear. I am the author of Spicy Schematics (http://ischematics.com), the first and [only] app on iPad that offers real spice simulation ... this is a great story and one of the reasons I wrote the program! The ipad is a great platform, and I think designing circuits should and can be easy and intuitive ... combining spice with a touch-based GUI seemed only natural to me, but it was surprising that noone had done it yet! .. well it has been a year now, and we are thousands of users strong, and the program has grown quite a bit ... there are many advanced features now including one-click sharing, import/export, and more ... in addition, we now have an iphone spice utility that allows you to simulate netlists! (http://ischematics.com/iphone.html)
Great to hear and thank you for the post!
As much fun as Best Buy is, if you really want to light up a kid's enthusiasm for electronics, take him to Fry's Electronics. Not only is it enormous and loaded with fun gadgets to play with, but it also has lots of test equipment, components and of course motherboards, CPUs, DRAM, hard drives, PC cases, etc.
I fondly recall a trip to Fry's with my son when he was around 10. My old PC was overdue for replacement and I asked him if he would like to help me build a new computer and come with me to Fry's to buy all the parts. It was a big thrill for him, and he asked lots of questions and paid careful attention as we put it all together.
He has been building PCs for himself, his friends and also for me, since he was about 12.
Yep, I use to go to Radio Shack quite often and scope out their general merchandise, components, and kits. I also looked forward to getting their sales flyer in the mail and leafing through it. I think once you signed up for their free battery club card, you got the flyer. I also like going to Best Buy just to look around. I keep looking at netbooks there but still haven't bought one (Is it my imagination, or is hard drive density in laptops and netbooks no longer increasing at its former rate?).
The trouble is (at least in Aussie) that electronics parts stores are getting few and far between. There used to be a chain here (Dick Smith, started by an ex telecom tech) that wer great for parts and kits. He sold our and the supermarket giant that runs them now has ditched all the electronics bits and only does phones, cameras, TVs and computer stuff, etc. The upside has been that they sold off a lot of nice electronics-related stuff (breadboards, PCBs, scope probes, parts etc) for next to nothing to get rid of them and I got some good bargains.
The Tandy franchises here were taken over by the same lot, but the local franchisee has moved to another supplier and still does some electronics stuff, though I wonder how long it's going to last....
your comment about Fry's reminded me of my late father -- who was an engineer -- taking me to Akihabara. If anyone has ever been to Akihabara in Tokyo, you know what I am talking about. Especially in the old days, the place was crawling with little shops that sell everything from cables to transistors.
My father built our own stereo; built his own computer.
And that opened my eyes to what you can actually build yourself!
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