Sunday, January 17, 2010

Getting Children Interested in Science

Today's Kids Need A Chance to Gain "The Right Stuff"

After posting earlier today about the silliness in San Diego, I went to one of my favorite blogs, Instapundit, and – right at the top – was this item:

I empathize because we at WeatherData have had problems hiring software engineers over the years. Applied scientists, engineers, and software designers all seem to be in short supply. Many explanations have been offered over the last decade having to do with compensation and incentives and those may be valid. But, I worry about whether children, especially boys, are being given the opportunity to be bitten by the “science bug” when growing up.

I hate to sound like an “old guy” pining for my youth, but when I was a kid it was easy to find things that inspired children to dream, create, and think: Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Remco Science Kits, Radio Shack “make a radio” kits, Lionel Trains, and the Alpha 1 Ballistic Missile. Now, the only people who would go “ballistic” over that toy would be the attorneys who would try to block any company from selling it!

While my parents would never let me have the Daisy BB gun ("you'll shoot your eye out!"), they were wise enough to realize science and weather were my passion and allowed me to pursue it.  In today's environment, I would have been expelled from St. Catherine's School by the 6th grade with all of the rockets, weather gizmos, and science fair stuff I hauled to school.

I loved this all of this.  Eventually, my friends and I got more and more sophisticated to where we were making some pretty impressive amateur rockets. I once tried to create a thermometer that would go up in a rocket and measure temperatures above the ground, but it (of course) broke in the rocket's rapid acceleration on liftoff. I learned by doing.

In my chosen field, meteorology, Remco had kits to make anemometers and there were several “build a weather station” kits and I built them all.  By the time I got to college, they gave me credit for but let me actually skip a course in meteorology because I had taught myself so much as a kid.

There are modern versions of those toys.  Snap Circuits, for example, gets very high reviews. But, they don’t seem to be “mainstream.” In the 50’s and 60’s, you saw television commercials for Lionel Trains, Erector Sets and Remco alongside of that new doll called “Barbie.” I still see Barbie advertised, I don’t see the others. 

So, let me make a suggestion:  If your son or daughter shows the slightest inclination toward science or engineering, buy whichever of these seems appropriate. If he or she seems initially intimidated, do the first project with them. Then, let their imagination and skill take over. Who knows, you might have a future Nobel Prize winner.

And, if your children don't actually "do science" in their career, consider the job University of Kansas engineer Alan Mulally is doing running Ford Motor Company. Engineering is a great background to have (I have a minor in it) for the thinking and logic skills - along with the self-confidence - it imparts, even if you don't actually sit around designing rocket ships.  

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