Generation Consumer

My twelve year old son has had a rapidly expanding interest in technology since an early age. One of my proudest moments as a father was checking on him after bedtime to find him fast asleep with a Ruby on Rails for Dummies book on his chest. ;) But the more his technical interests mature, the more I realize he lacks a peer group with a similar passion.

I live in a suburb outside Boston with a school system ranked in the upper third of the state, and in a state ranked top in the nation for science and engineering education. My experience with our public school system has been positive, with dedicated teachers supported by an engaged community. But across my son’s middle school, he has found exactly one peer with a similar interest in programming.

When I was twelve years old, I was one of several local students staying up late hacking on a computer. My peer group met on weekends to exchange games and talk technology, and attended school-sponsored gatherings to show off our personal programming projects. By 7th grade, I took programming classes at my middle school, and graduated high school having taken computer courses five out of the following six years.

Three decades later, I am struggling to find any local school districts offering technology courses. Like my son’s middle school, these interests have been pushed to be extracurricular, like playing basketball. At the same time, there has never been a generation of students with more access to technology. Our children are more equipped than a Star Trek Borg, using iPhones, iPads, XBoxes, Wiis, MacBooks, smartboards, and the web. All of this should make a technologist like me happy but for one problem: the focus of our schools seems to be on the consumption, not creation of technology. The result is we are creating a generation with little or no interest in how their technology was created.

The Homebrew Computer Club ethos that launched a computer revolution and drove many of my early teachers to incorporate technology in schools seems to be fading. Young entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg honed their passion not at school, but through a private tutor. Kids with an interest in creating technology today have fewer places than ever to turn in order to receive adult and peer support.

For generations U.S. children have been inspired to create technology in the classroom - from the Space Race-driven promotion of science and math during the 1960s to the grassroots adoption of personal computers in the 1970s. I fear we are at risk of losing this inspiration in the current generation, as our schools embrace technology consumption over creation. So while I follow in the tracks of Ed Zuckerberg in finding creative ways to support my son’s interest outside school, I can only hope that other parents are doing the same.

My son learned to program using MIT Scratch, which I would highly recommend for kids under 11. _His favorite book for learning programming was Learn to Program, which teaches using Ruby. He also has enjoyed FIRST LEGO League, which introduces kids to robotics through competition. _

Special thanks to my father for inspiring a passion for learning and technology in me, and to teachers like Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sheldon, who brought their passion for creating technology into my classrooms.

1/30/2012 update: NYC opens new software school.