Saturday, 27 April 2013

Technology isn't Just About Coding and Circuit Design

In the past few years there has been lots of discussion on why kids should learn to write code. We've been concerned with how Marc Prensky's digital natives are actually just users who have no idea what's inside the box or how to make a new box. They're not natives at all, just passive consumers.

So then we get the idea that all kids need to learn to code and be able to whip up a cool invention with a Raspberry Pi. I fully support the idea that all kids should have the opportunity to do this - mine certainly will.

But, I think we'll be missing the point if we focus too heavily on just the deep tech skills. They will not appeal to everyone and not everyone will be good at them. Even within the professional coding community there is a huge disparity between average coders and awesome coders. And everyone should try and find a career that they are awesome at, not just average.

The tech industry shouldn't be too closely associated with programming, circuit design and building control systems. There are loads of other things that need doing to develop future technology and they require different skill sets and will appeal to a broader set of kids.

I've come across a couple of items recently that are great at demonstrating  some of the other skills that the tech industry needs. In both cases, it's the skills beyond the hard engineering skills that I think are most interesting (and are the skills we should be working out how to develop in students.)

First there's Ayah Bdeir who founded littleBits which we've been playing with recently. In her Ted Talk Building blocks that blink, beep and teach she does a great job of communicating her passion for getting people to build new stuff that includes electronics. Instead of saying that everyone must learn circuit design and soldering she has simplified the use of electronics so that kids, creative designers and makers can integrate electronics into their projects. 

Then I read an interview with Sally Carson on the Make: website. Sally is a co-founder of Pinoccio a new microcontroller board for controlling small systems and connecting them to the Internet of Things. But it's Sally's role at Pinoccio that got my interest - she works on user experience design.

I think there are a lot of people out there like me, who are somewhat geeky, but not super “deep geeks.” - Sally Carson

Sally is concerned about making Pinoccio easier to use, appealing to customers and useful.

Clearly Pinoccio is a fairly low level piece of hardware and some technical skill is needed to operate it. But it's clear that Sally wants to make a product that people love and that isn't any harder to use than it needs to be.

Both Ayah Bdeir and Sally Carson have used skills beyond the hard-core technical and also have a focus on making technology hackable by more people.

I don't think we necessarily need lots more people with very deep technical skills. I do think we need more people who are comfortable with technology and want to work on simplifying it for others or designing it into projects without necessarily being the one to write the code or design complex circuits. 

It's not even about ability. It's about what you're interested in. What you want to spend your working life doing.

So yes, kids should learn to code and make a Rasberry Pi do neat tricks. But if that's not their thing, they shouldn't assume that a tech career isn't for them. There's plenty of other stuff that needs doing that doesn't require you to be an uber-geek. I'd rather see tweens building cool stuff using littleBits than having a Raspberry Pi gathering dust on a shelf.

We need more of the somewhat geeky types.

Oh and yes, Ayah and Sally are both female. I have a feeling that the key to getting more girls into computing, engineering and related disciplines isn't trying to persuade them that they do want to be uber-geeks (though many of them will) but demonstrating the wider range of careers such as user experience design that require tech skills, but also draw on a wider range of capabilities.

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