Electronic Design

Get Kids Involved In Electronics Before We Become Extinct

I just finished reading through dozens of your responses to Communications/Test Editor Lou Frenzel's online commentary, "Whatever Happened To The Electronics Hobbyist?" Lou really struck a chord, as so many of you have followed a parallel path from hobbyist to amateur radio afficionado to electronics engineer. You fondly recall the good old days and recount some of your favorite hands-on projects. You also debate what has become of the hobbyist. Are today's tinkerers toying at the systems level? Are they coders hacking away with Linux? Or are true hobbyists heading for extinction?

Meanwhile, some posters pondered how we can get today's kids interested in getting "under the hood" with electronics when their tech toys—Razrs, iPods, Wiis—are so much more advanced than anything they could build themselves. Some of you even questioned the relevance of getting kids involved in electronics, pointing to a lack of opportunity for engineers in the U.S. today.

Based on my trip to a Freescale media day, which offered a peek at some leading-edge technology, the opportunities for U.S. engineers are plentiful. In fact, Freescale is rife with innovation.

Its i.MX31 multimedia processors now power wireless devices running extensive multimedia applications. Its system-in-package solutions integrate accelerometers, microcontrollers, and RF transmitters for applications like tire pressure monitoring. And ramping up with a pilot production line in Tempe, Ariz., its redistributed chip packaging (RCP) technology eliminates wire bonds and package substrates.

Freescale is aggressively hiring U.S. engineers for these projects. The job market is particularly competitive in the high-performance analog space, where Freescale is increasing its design capabilities for industrial and consumer applications. The company is opening new engineering centers in Milpitas, Calif., and Irvine, Calif., as well as in Shanghai, China.

The perception that "there are few opportunities for engineers here because everything is built in Asia" just isn't the reality of today's engineering market. Granted, most consumer electronics manufacturing is, by economic necessity, done in China and Southeast Asia. But the awesome design represented by today's hit consumer products is a triumph of global competition and cooperation, with each component that wins a socket in these devices presumably the best in its class from niche engineering specialists.

Assuming this demand for innovative ideas from the Western world isn't going away anytime soon, I come back to the quandary of how to get more kids interested in engineering. This isn't a hypothetical question for me, as I have a 14-year-old son who says his career goal is to be an inventor and who loves the latest electronic toys—but he isn't a tinkerer. I can't buy him a kit to build his own gaming station, so I try to think of other ways to turn his love of the latest gadgetry into a career motivator.

True, I have a huge advantage as the editor of Electronic Design, but I work to engage all my kids with what I've learned from teardowns of the iPod or the Wii. I talk to them about the amazing engineering inside, and I paint a picture of the sort of dream jobs of those who get to create these devices.

I had the perfect opportunity for this sort of motivational chat the other morning. I was somewhat dumbstruck to find myself standing with my son in an hour-long queue at Toys R Us on the day a shipment of Wiis had arrived—the Nintendo gaming machine that's still nearly impossible to find at a retail store even months after its Christmas sellout.

I used the opportunity to talk to my son about how ASICs are designed and how the gaming machines are driving the development of the most advanced chips on the planet. I also talked about accelerometers and how the Wii makes the most of them.

And, I talked to him about the future for those who go into engineering; about the tech superstars of our world—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos; and about the unlimited opportunities for those who can understand and invent new technology. The more complicated that technology gets, the more that the people who really understand it will succeed. My son loved my inside information. By the time we got to the counter, he was nearly as excited by the Wii's engineering as he was about the chance to go home and hone his gaming skills.

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