Thursday, October 06, 2022

It is with great interest that I have been reading about the Bergen County School-Shul Tech Initiative (“A Sneak Peek of What is to Come: Living Connected: A Bergen County School-Shul Tech Initiative,” Sept. 1, 2022). I applaud all parties involved for stepping up and taking action. There is clearly a need for discussion, at the very least, on the topic of technology usage. To date, I have seen much discourse on the negative effects of too much screen time. However, I would like to approach the topic from a different perspective. How can we nurture our children to grow into producers of technology rather than consumers of technology?

I am a software engineer, as is my husband, as were both our fathers before us. Both my husband and I were exposed to technology at home from a young age. We both believe that we owe our desire to pursue careers in IT, in part, to our early exposure to computers. Did our fathers or schools teach us programming from a young age? Certainly not! What then, was the nature of our exposure that inspired a lifetime of continual technology exploration? None other than playing computer games. I would eagerly await my turn to play Asteroids, Space Invaders and later, Paperboy and Tetris. I was in awe of my father for creating a game that allowed my brothers and I to practice mathematics. I felt so accomplished when he later showed me how to use the command line to copy data to floppy disks. My husband’s game list is much longer! For him, the joy of delving into a fictitious computer generated world was soon replaced by curiosity. How could he create these fantasy lands for himself?

I’m sure that if our main source of exposure to IT would have been in a programming class in school, we would not have been interested in software engineering at all. Programming is hard. Starting with simple exercises, we feel rewarded when we solve the problem. Then we iterate, moving on to harder and more complex scenarios. The motivation to sit, concentrating on a single algorithm for hours, needs to be developed over time. The desire to sit in front of a computer for long stretches often comes when we have learned to enjoy our computers/phones for which we are programming. The video game player will sometimes realize that their character is not strong enough to tackle a certain problem now; they must first strengthen themselves before retrying. Through this, they learn about strategies, critical thinking, perseverance and persistence.

Not convinced that exposure to computer games can lead to productive computer usage? There are many scholars that attribute the male dominated computing industry to the plethora of marketing campaigns and games geared towards boys and men in the early ‘80s. For example the Apple personal computer at the time was marketed specifically toward boys, even going so far as to tease the girls for their computer skills. Introducing boys to technology led to a male dominated tech workforce. Nowadays, the plethora of games available are more varied, complex and social, reaching a wider audience.

Certainly we must all agree that technology is not going to disappear. I, for one, would not want it to. When machines are keeping loved ones alive in a hospital, we should thank God that a child was exposed to the joys of technology at a young age, and was able to grow into a successful engineer and produce such miraculous devices.

Being software engineers has been the most wonderful career path for us. We were able to work remotely throughout the pandemic, with zero disruption to our productivity. We are afforded great flexibility in our daily work schedules. Our somewhat introverted nature is more of an advantage than a hindrance, in the IT field. Additionally, the salary is not to be sniffed at.

So how can we nurture this love and curiosity for all things technical? I believe it starts with exposing them to technology more, not less, but as producers not consumers. Here are just a handful of suggestions that we can implement with our children at home:

Allow them to install apps on their phones, that give them the ability to customize their phone through small scripts.

Encourage them to create their own webpages, from scratch, not a template.

Maybe they want to learn hacking. There is a large demand for ethical hackers. Bug bounties are available for those who find the bugs first!

They don’t want to program? Maybe they will enjoy producing animations and vector images using the Adobe suite.

They love gaming? Perhaps they can explore and find some hacks.

More mechanical? Take apart old laptops and discover the plethora of interesting components inside, including a Fresnel layer that captures and steers light. Have a go at de-soldering and re-soldering components from the circuit boards.

Have a broken printer that is no longer in use? Before throwing it away, give your curious, budding engineer a screwdriver and challenge them to find all the various motors inside a printer. They’ll be surprised at how many there are.

What can we do to foster a healthy sense of curiosity in our schools? I would like to see the STEAM labs taking front and center stage. They should have large internal windows and be located where the students pass every day. Exciting creations should be on display for all to see and celebrate. Make it fun. Perhaps competitions to find the fastest typist in the school, or the strongest robot. Of course, equal emphasis should be placed on fostering the technical minds of both our male and female students.

As we continue these important discussions, let us keep in mind that technology in and of itself is not evil. We must foster a healthy love of technology, if we want our children to thrive in a world where these devices are ubiquitous. Through early exposure to technology, my husband and I were able to go into the careers we love. Recently, my husband started a new job programming robotic dogs for the military. He looks forward to work every single day. He no longer has to play computer games for hours a day, because he can program the real deal instead.

Shoshana Sokolic
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