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.
That's exactly how I feel about the Apple Store. As another testament to Steve Jobs' seemingly mystical sense into how to draw in consumers the 'please touch' aura that the Apple Store exudes further adds to the desirability of their devices. I've never heard as many 'wow's and "aahh"s at the circus as I have heard standing around an Apple Store display table.
Jon - http://www.evosite.co.uk
Jaycar do a lot of kits as well as things like wireless weather stations, remote control toys and things like that, they also do techie stuff but the stores that actually stock that are few and far between - they can order you anything from the catalogue though. This is the case where I live.
Great stories here. I agree that Fry's is the best place to go today in the US. But if you ever get the chance, Akihabara is a great place to wander around. The companies in Japan make a lot of products that never go into production and you can find prototypes in Akihabara. That was probably the most fun I have had in my life wandering around electronics stores. Don't you miss the old Heath kits?
@alhertan: I agree. Another option is to get many parts/kits to children and do some hobby project with them to give them push. Also, volunteering in school or community center for hobby project may find many eager student looking for avenues in science and technology.
I do not think that a trip to Best Buy is an ideal place to inspire youth to go into engineering. Most of the items on display at Best Buy are consumer electronics products that are meant to be consumed by users. They're for the user oriented crowds that want to buy new toys to use. Most of those that own iphones care not about how it works. They care only that it does do the things that Apple promised them that it would do.
Visiting websites like hackaday and electronics-lab.com/blog, instructables.com are in my opinion the ideal way to getting students excited about electronics / electrical engineering and embedded systems. Other websites that set up exciting demos like controlling a robot over the internet from your phone and then explaining how to replicate this effort e.g. are great.
Best Buy wasn't around when I was a kid, and definitely not in my hometown--still isn't. Personal computers did not exist. When my kids were growing up we started with the TI 99/4A and upgraded from there, from dialup to DSL...etc. My son did pursue engineering directly, but he has in a different way, he is competent on a computer and many other things. He has taken a different path. My daughter as well has chosen to be something else altogether--her love is writing. My path to engineering is with a Physics Degree.
My grandfather was an old telephone man and had parts leftover from his days with a switchboard. He built a continuity checker using a generator from a crank telephone, the ringer coils, making a buzzer with them. We loved to hold the clamps on the wires and shock ourselves and anyone willing to be a sucker! I still have it.
I am in my sixties and my grandfather is long gone, but I still remember the fascination with electrical stuff. That I got from playing with the things he had.
When I got to college, I was debating electronics or Physics for a major, my Physics teacher said do you want to make things work or understand how they work, I chose the how and went into Physics studies. the school wasn't big enough to have an engineering school, so I stayed and got a Physics degree. (two years there and two years soemwhere else to get an engineering degree) I have worked as an engineer (title) but haven't done any designing. As a young adult I ordered stuff from Allied Electronics, Burstein Applebee, Radio Shack, etc. I still have stuff I ordered from a place back East in Framigham Massachusetts, that sold IC's and other components at a low price. Kind of a "Harbor Freight" of electrical/electronic parts.
At a previous job in the U.S., I worked for a company that had acquired and Australian company. In reviewing their parts list, I ran into Dick Smith as well as another company you might have heard of, Jaycar Electronics.
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