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.