Electronic Design

Technology Takes Kids From Toys To Engineering Careers

My son Joe is gaming via our Wi-Fi connection, lying on the couch with his Nintendo DS, racing Mario Kart drivers from around the globe. One teenage daughter, Anna, is up in her room lounging about and chatting and texting on her cell phone. My other daughter Sarah is sprawled out, watching one of the 400 or so channels that beam down from DirectTV's satellite. I'm wireless too, but working, writing this from the back porch. Yes, wireless is everywhere. (And giving teenagers myriad new ways to practice the art of lying about.) My kids seem to take this wireless ubiquity for granted. It's just another utility, like water, gas, or electric. I'm forever trying to get them to understand that these utilities aren't limitless—or free—especially those cell-phone minutes!

But as a parent of teenagers, I wonder if kids have the same sense of wonder about how things work when new technologies are so integral to their lifestyles. When radio and TV were new, they were such revolutionary technologies they inspired a whole generation to get into electronics.

The technology behind today's cell phones and video games is revolutionary in its own right. But as you electronic designers know, these products also drive the leading edge of digital design, with chips created via highly specialized EDA tools running on banks of servers, by teams of dozens if not hundreds of engineers. They aren't exactly Heathkit projects that can be torn apart and put back together in an afternoon!

When it comes to getting kids off the sofa and into engineering, Dean Kamen has been a trailblazer. Inventor of the Segway and holder of 150 patents, Kamen also founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the nonprofit group dedicated to inspiring young people to careers as inventors and scientists. And it works. A recent study by Brandeis University of the FIRST Lego League showed that 59% of students in the league want to pursue carrers in science or engineering.

Kamen was a keynoter at NI Week last month in Austin, Texas where he discussed "Inspiring Present and Future Scientists and Engineers to Innovate." Kamen says FIRST sparks interest in engineering via the fun competitive spirit found in sports. The program works, with kids filling sports arenas for the FIRST Robotics finals!

At NI week, Kamen stressed the importance of practicing engineers getting involved at the local level to work with educators and to serve as mentors for kids aspiring to science and technology careers. As electronic designers, you can inspire the next generation! Check out www.usfirst.org to help.

Kamen was a natural for NI week, as National Instruments is very involved in educational initiatives and sponsors the FIRST programs. NI also partners with Lego, working with the toy company to develop Mindstorms NXT software that lets kids use drag and drop tools to program Lego robots.

During NI week, National Instruments announced an NI LabVIEW Toolkit for LEGO Mindstorms NXT, so more advanced Mindstorms NXT users can use LabVIEW's graphical programming tools. Also, third-party developers can use the toolkit to program and control their hardware for use in the NXT software. For example, HiTechnic Products developed a Digital Compass Sensor for Mindstorms NXT.

At NI Week, Lego Education announced a collaboration with NI, Tufts University Center for Engineering Education Outreach, Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Academy, and Vernier Software & Technology. The goal is to integrate robotics kits, software, and sensors into a curriculum to help students learn science, engineering, and math concepts. The curriculum aims to provide a complete robotics engineering experience for students in grade three through the university level.

Lego says the goal is "not to produce a generation of roboticists," but rather to use the program to produce a " mathematically competent, technologically literate child." Still, a generation of roboticists might be just what we need, since robotics provides that engineering experience that ignites kids' interest.

As I watched Lego robots compete at NI week and saw the sophisticated use of sensors and programming, I couldn't help but think about the Jetsons-like possibilities for robots in our lives. Roomba, the popular vacuuming robot, is just the start. Who wouldn't want a robot that could pick up clothes and do the laundry or clean the house? Hey, that reminds me of the chores those lazy kids should be doing if they weren't lying around enjoying the wireless ubiquity!

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