Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education -- or STEM ed, as it's called -- is a big deal. Over the past few years, we've opened a huge gap between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world and, ironically, hiring in high tech is up while management and financial hiring is down or flat. In short, there's no better time to get our kids interested in technology.
But how do you get young ones interested in computing, electronics, and engineering? It's easy: You sneak it in the same way you sneak vegetables into their mac and cheese!
I was lucky this week to hang out with the folks at Adafruit Industries, an electronics company with a mission. Their goal is to teach kids (and adults) about electronics and occasionally sell hardware and give away software. Their best product is called the Adafruit Learning System, available here. Using a mix of hardware and software tools, you can teach your kids about basic electronic components and even build a cool little computer from scratch.
But where do you start?
The easiest way to experiment with electronics is the Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer that runs off a USB power cable and can connect to almost any monitor or TV. This $35 kit includes everything you need to connect your Pi to the Internet and start programming and experimenting. The Pi is a full computer that runs a free operating system called Linux. Because it's so cheap, you don't have to worry about the little ones destroying it, and there is so much information online about this kit that it's almost impossible to get lost.
Fans of basic electronics can try something like Littlebits, a modern answer to those electronics kits we had as kids. Littlebits is sort of like Lego-meets-the-21st-century and features small pieces that snap together in seconds to create real circuits.
That fuzzy chip up there comes from a game called Circuit Playground, a free app that helps teach kids about capacitors and resistors. Trust me: It's more fun than it sounds. You can play the game on your iPad or iPhone.
Both of these hobby kits are fairly inexpensive, but if your little one is serious about, say, engineering, you may want to look into picking up a Makerbot. These machines let you print out objects -- blocks, toys, tools -- in real plastic. You will never feel as futuristic as when you pull a finished object off of your Makerbot.
These three tools help kids think of technology less as something hidden behind the scenes and more as something very real and easy to understand. By showing kids that electronics are fun and useful, we can build the next generation of creators. And who knows: Maybe your toddler will be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg?
How do you get your kids excited about technology and math?
Images via Adafruit Industries, RaspberryPi