Another Approach to the Kids

Last week my mind was on video games for getting kids interested in process control. (See "Nancy's Great Idea"). Today, this story has popped up on the news wires. Way to go, Ian Culhane. Who says you can't get kids interested in anything besides t.v. and Harry Potter? Now building roller coasters with building blocks isn't process control, but don't tell me these kinds of contests aren't teaching kids like Ian the basic thought processes they need to be good engineers -- including those working in process automation. K'NEX Brands is on to a good thing here too. It's the old doing-well-by-doing-good mantra. Who can object to a toy company getting good publicity for awarding a $10,000 scholarship? This didn't cost K'NEX too much, and the good vibes in the treeware press and across the Interwebs is going to be priceless. So how come some of the same companies that are sweating about where the next generation of engineers is going to come from can't come up with a variation on the K'NEX theme tied to their products? Are we all too locked in the doom-and-gloom scenarios we've been spinning out for the last couple of decades--all manufacturing is going to China, and besides, we're automating ourselves out of jobs anyway--to see opportunities in front of our noses?  This whole getting-the-kids-involved-with-hands-on-projects thing doesn't have to be left to National Instruments and Mindstorms and the building block toymakers. Coming up with these kinds of ideas to capture kids' imaginations is a game anybody can play. How 'bout a brainstorming session or two with some of the science teachers in your area to see what kind of intriguing play-and-learn projects you can develop to jump-start an interest in engineering? How 'bout talking to some kids about the kinds of games they like to play? How 'bout channeling your own childhood and remembering the sorts of things that intrigued you and brought you to a decision to get into process automation? The K'NEX contest and FIRST Robotics are not panaceas. Getting the next generation of engineers is a multi-faceted problem with equally multi-faceted solutions. But such programs are certainly part of the picture. Sure, we need lobbying efforts and conversations with academia about proper cirricula and all kinds of grown-up activities to address the coming shortage. But Ian Culhane didn't spend last summer and fall building a toy rollercoaster because he read a well-thought-out position paper. He was having fun. Maybe we should channel our inner children and be thinking about more ways to help other kids like Ian see the fun in engineering.