December 19, 2013, 4:37 PM —
When I was a teenager, my father found an old computer at a yard sale. (He was an aerospace engineer so I suppose the yard sales he went to reflected the detritus of his nerdy friends.) It was a luggable (suitcase-sized) portable running CPM. In the fast-pace of technical change, even then, it was junk by the time he bought it. But he thought it would be fun to play with.
I was lucky enough to be the only one home -- doing homework at the dining room table --when he dragged it out of the car. So he dropped it in front of me and said, “See if you can figure this out.” He didn’t ask about it again, insist I do anything particular with it, or care if I broke it. I did figure it out. In fact, I fell in love with it. I packed away my Royal typewriter and never went back to analog. That “toy” sparked an interest in technology that changed the course of my life. So, since it’s the holidays and you might be shopping for gifts for kids in your life, why not see if you can drop a gift under the tree that sparks an interest in building the future?
Here are a few suggestions.
Back when the world was growing people who knew how to create with technology, there was a rich sub-culture of computer hobbyists who tinkered and created with parts not built-to-order for the purpose. Tim Berners-Lee (who later invented the World Wide Web), for example, built his first computer with a soldering iron, TTL gates, an M6800 processor, and an old television. The Rasbery Pi is an inexpensive (~$35), basic, Linux computer that is designed to bring back that era of tinkering inventiveness for today’s kids (and to offer low-cost computers to the masses.) Drop one on the homework table and see what happens.
This dollhouse building toy lets girls design and build the house themselves instead of waiting while Dad wields a nail gun. And it includes circuitry and motors so the house she builds will be awesome and teach her engineering concepts as she does it. It was created by two female engineers who were themselves inspired to pursue engineering by toys given to them by their dads.
Know a kid who lives for computer games? He should learn how to build them then. This game-design tool was created by Microsoft Research’s FUSE Labs. Kids can build their own video games within minutes by dragging and dropping images and simple icons.
A construction toy for girls that hopes to break the stereotype that building toys are for boys. It recognizes that when girls play, though, they tend to prefer to create narratives and characters. So it integrates storytelling into the building process. GoldieBlox's creator is a woman who found herself drawn to engineering. But when she got there was shocked at how few women work and study in her field. She hopes to change that for the next generation at an early age.
These techno-age building toys -- compatible with Lego -- add interactive features to your creations: Bluetooth, sensors, motors, action, motors, and sensors to your creations. Once built, you can control your ATOM-built machines with an app. They are creative and fun and teach programming and engineering concepts.