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Hello World (and Brain!)

Someone recently asked me to write a blog about what I believe is the most important aspect of technology education. I started to think about all the cool things that I enjoy teaching and what sounds impressive to students and teachers; things that get techies excited. We’re all obsessed with the next new big thing. The smallest machine or robot. The brightest laser or the most engaging software. The tool that gives more efficiency to the teachers in the classroom, better data to administration, or just returns that plain ol’ wow factor to information-saturated students. But the more I think about it the more I realize that the thing I think is most important about technology education is also the oldest— it’s the culture. We teach about technology for a reason. The same reason someone first taught another how to handle fire or oddly shaped rocks. We teach so that we can continue to make and understand the tools that help people. The little bits of wire and chemicals are really just an excuse to develop people. It doesn’t matter if the technology is the coolest smart material or the oldest form of flash storage known to humanity. What matters is that in the process we are also developing the oldest tool that all of our cultures across the ages have had in common. Just like our smartphones and GPS that tool runs on electricity but you can’t buy it on the internet. I’m talking about the human brain.

At Maker Faires everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher!

When I teach in Colorado or East Africa I don’t care so much that people understand every nuance of the code or circuits in the workshop. What I hope is that they are curious about what they don’t know and excited about the possibilities of connecting their own passions with the ones and zeroes we are creating. If they just want to plug in LEDs or change the images in a computer game that’s totally cool with me. Of course I’m more excited when they want to dig down into the fundamental and ubiquitous concepts like bits, bytes, and transistors; but I figure if new neurons are firing, then in a way the most important transistors are already being explored. As a teacher I’ve been guilty of trying to jam too much information into a class. But like serial buffers with wireless communication nothing will get through unless the speed of transmission matches the speed the student can receive. Luckily wonderful people have been creating systems that adapt to students and allow self pacing. So we can rush ahead and leave some things abstract while focusing on just being excited in the moment. That’s important so the student can dream about ways to connect technology to their own lives and passions. But eventually they will return to the core concepts and do the hard work of making the intangible a concrete concept in their minds. That requires flexibility on the part of the educators since no two brains think alike. It also requires the ability to make the complex as simple as possible. I could go on for days about how great multi-discipline projects are so great and cool. Teamwork skills and working with technology necessitates the ability to develop liberal arts skills to make user interfaces and documentation. It doesn’t matter what OS a platform is running or how stable a power supply is if the most complex circuit in the system, the one behind the students’ eyes, isn’t completely engaged.

Every moment of every day we learn things, hopefully useful things

At the end of the day the platform that a student or engineer uses doesn’t matter as much as the end result of their effort. The app that gets someone to the hospital quicker can be written in drag and drop programming, machine code, or anything in between. The cure for malaria might come from a chemist, an RF engineer, or a determined self proclaimed “newb.” The life that is saved doesn’t care how it happened or even how eloquent the code is as long as there is a result. With every life-changing good deed that a teacher inspires, the culture of technology education grows just a little bit. The important thing is that it grows in both the heart of the student and the teacher. Sometimes the classroom culture is a network of thousands or millions. Sometimes, most often, the student and teacher are the same person. Regardless of who it is, the heart winds up guiding the brain which prompts another cycle of new technology exploration guided by these age-old underlying concepts.