on March 8th, 2007

I remember clearly, when I was in my teens, experimenting with crystal radios and being quite excited with the first crackly reception of the local AM radio station. Or connecting my first telephone up between our shed and my bedroom (and spilling battery acid everywhere – much to my mum’s chagrin). Other moments of excitement were stirring all sorts of interesting chemicals over my Bunsen burner and looking with interest at the litmus paper turning red due to some strange, acidic mixture I had extracted from seaweed. I even managed to manufacture alcohol from a primitive sugar and yeast solution I had fermented. After the taste test I remember lighting it to observe the wavering blue flame. I recall peering through my primitive microscope at some strange, miniscule, swimming creatures from the pond water. And my first construction of a hot air balloon, with its burner roaring – was a momentary success. Then later on, I constructed my first computer, programming in Assembler. Many electronic hobbyists became computer hobbyists (or hackers as they are often referred to today) as a result of playing with these electronics kits/computers. (Just consider the number of magazines that have been dedicated to these hobbyists.) Even before our teens, we were all doing some woodworking, bricklaying and metal working with our little toolkits. I am sure this helped spur us on to go to college and do engineering, where our theoretical knowledge was underpinned by all this practical know-how which we had built up as kids. Whichever engineering you chose, I believe my story is very similar to yours.

Today, I reckon we are down to a tenth of the number of enthusiasts we had in the seventies and early eighties. Most of the magazines have died. Very few kids today are interested in tinkering with soldering irons and electronic kits, dabbling in chemistry or woodwork. Now, after a brief flirtation with an electronics kit, my 9yo boy plays with his Sony Playstation and on the computer and doesn’t have much interest in constructing  new electronics devices.

Why have things changed?

A lot of the fun has gone out of the game of building things; the integrated circuits today are tiny – difficult to solder and a computer program can accomplish a lot of what one wants to achieve.

You can buy ready-made products, manufactured offshore, very cheaply.

The demand for immediate gratification is also proving a little stumbling block for the curious and creative child today. I believe the effort required to experiment, build or create – in an effort to attain an outcome – is considered by children, more often than not, too onerous and unnecessary.
Test equipment has progressed well beyond a cheap multimeter and 10MHz scope to a minimum of a complex logic analyzer and protocol analyzer. No 4-20mA current loops any longer, but a communications circuit which you can’t simply look at with a voltmeter.

Technology today is so exciting and cheap. The simulation games played on Playstation are so realistic. Even TV has some attraction with Big Brother proving to be riveting with all the salacious detail of some lost soul’s personal agonies. Cell phones and computers have become so much more appealing than our electronic kits. Although, I remember with such nostalgia and know that hearing my first scratchy AM station with a crystal radio was one of those tremendous “Eureka” moments.

What does this all mean, and what of the future?

Now, before you mechanical types sigh and say “Nothing to do with me”, it does impact on all of us whether we are civil/mechanical/chemical or electrical engineers and technicians.

I don’t believe we need to exclaim despairingly that all is lost and consign this to the  boulevard of broken engineering dreams, but instead should jump in boots and all and seize the nettle (to mix a number of metaphors) and promote these older approaches today. “But why bother?” I hear you saying (somewhat, shrilly though).

Experiential learning, especially when we are young, is the best method of gaining good knowledge, inspiring an interest in a subject and making one competent in it. Nothing can beat this – a concept supported by research. For example, experimenting with an electronic circuit, making it work and then trying to understand what makes it tick is invaluable for cementing our knowledge and giving us an understanding in the physical “universe” in which we work as technical professionals.

There is no doubt, though, that engineering is far more automated today and the throw away culture is very much with us. If your flowmeter in your plant doesn’t work, you generally don’t hesitate to get it replaced – not necessarily repaired. Does this leave us poorer as technical professionals and as a sustainable civilization? I believe so. We should be using more of the equipment we throw out or even passing it onto others who can use it. This does require a good practical knowledge of engineering, however, as distinct from someone who works on a software program or who has merely gained this knowledge during 4 year degree.

Our kids

Our kids are moving away from the engineering and science worlds – it is simply not exciting enough and perhaps they haven’t been exposed to these worlds enough to be enticed. We need to constantly think of ways to make science and technology interesting and riveting.

There is a great program on Aussie TV entitled the “New Inventors” which my 9yo boy loves. People of all ages construct nifty, practical solutions to pressing and irritating day to day problems and submit them for scrutiny. The ideas range from effectively locking a valve out on a plant for safety reasons, to automatically cleaning your house gutters, to energy saving devices to a clever way to ensure you ‘wee’ straight into the toilet bowl as a boy. We need more programs like this.

The schools should also take responsibility for creating science programs which make science real and intriguing.

We need to harness these incredible computer games that are hitting the streets, to ensure they include a  more powerful technology and engineering bias – what about designing your own renewable energy system, online, to save the planet (similar to SimCity) or designing a program by connecting lego blocks which can ultimately control your garden reticulation network or home burglar alarm.

We need to encourage our kids to work with the great, physical materials surrounding us. They could build wooden bridges, construct pumps to create simple, but beautiful fountains. Electronics kits are cheap. Encourage them to troubleshoot the garden reticulation to reduce water consumption. Get them to help us to install our first solar energy panels to reduce carbon dioxide consumption, or give them the job of installing it. The Do it Yourself (DIY) industry is flourishing. You can go down to your hardware store and source the most amazing products for your garden and home at ridiculously cheap prices. And the kits plug together with minimal wastage of time – providing immediate gratification. And a physical result – not just a computer program with concepts that are merely virtual. Fundamentally, working with real physical materials is fun.

There is tremendous (professional) simulation software for electronic circuits today and it would be great to get our kids onto this by distributing a ‘lite’ version for kids. It doesn’t matter if they don’t quite understand all of it. But experimenting with it; and seeing the relevance to the real world would make it interesting and enjoyable.

As Anatole France remarked, oh so many years ago,

The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.

Thanks to Electronic Design magazine for an article in similar vein which triggered this outburst of mine.

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