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Want Kids to Win the Future? Turn Them into Makers โ€” and Sci-Fi Fans

by: posted Thursday, May 26, 2011
Category: Education

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Nolan Bushnell once almost destroyed his family’s garage. As a youngster in Utah, he went tooling around with a liquid-fuel rocket on a roller skate and things went awry. He (and the garage) survived, and Bushnell went on to be a lifelong innovator — from Pong to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Bushnell’s background makes him a natural fit for this weekend’s Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. He will be headlining the event Saturday with a presentation on why it’s important to teach children to be makers in order to stay competitive in the future.

“If you look at [Steve] Jobs and [Steve] Wozniak, they were makers,” Bushnell said in a phone interview with Wired.com. “The more we can turn the nation into a nation of makers, they will be smarter, they’ll be better problem-solvers, and they’ll be more equipped for the problems of tomorrow.”

That roll-up-your-sleeves creative work ethic is a founding principle of the Maker Faire. Started in 2006 by DIY bible Make magazine, the family-friendly events are held in cities around the world, bringing together artists, crafters, engineers and science geeks to swap tips — and sometimes stare in awe — at homemade wonders like robot dragons, muffin cars and LED projects.

Bushnell’s presentation is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the San Mateo Maker Faire, which is expected to draw 80,000 attendees this year and more than 600 DIY makers of all varieties — from Tesla coil tunesmiths to Lego artisans.

Bushnell, who co-founded Atari in 1972 and later started many other companies, including colorful pizza chain Chuck E. Cheese’s, said he thinks a lot of what is taught in schools now won’t prepare students for the jobs that will exist in the future, simply because no one knows what those jobs will be. To address that shortcoming, he’s looking to start a program that will get young people interested in creating things.

His plan for future generations lines up perfectly with Maker Faire’s ideals. It’s also similar to the Young Makers program, which pairs young people with mentors to create things to bring to the Faire, said Dale Dougherty, the editor of Make magazine.

“We have a big focus on education, and I’m really glad to have Nolan’s support of that,” Dougherty told Wired.com. “We bring over 500 teachers to Maker Faire, and they say they’re hungry for ideas and things that will ignite kids and get them excited to solve problems and create things.”

So how does Bushnell plan to get kids excited about the world of maker-dom? The details are still being worked out, but he envisions clubs where adults could give young people the education and tools to create anything they could imagine. Think of it as a 4-H club for nerds. If the clubs took off, they could be integrated into school programs.

Bushnell would also like to get more young people to read science fiction instead of classic literature, which he says only teaches students about the past. A curriculum that includes more sci-fi, he said, will make students think about ways to innovate for the future, adding that the “correlation between early adopters and science-fiction reading is one-to-one.”

Ultimately, in a tune that almost every maker has sung, Bushnell’s philosophy is about having hobbies that bear fruit, like tech whizzes tinkering in garages and dorm rooms. By some reckonings, bachelor’s degrees won’t be worth much in the future, because they will be so common.

Young adults need to be prepared for that educational sea change, Bushnell said.

“When I hired engineers and people on the creative side, I never looked at their grades,” he said, referring to the teams he built at Atari and beyond. “I interviewed them strictly on their hobbies, and if they did not have a hobby in technology I wouldn’t hire them…. Kids, when they make, are actually preparing themselves better for the jobs they’ll have in the future than [they are by] getting straight A’s.”

More and more, the big ideas are going to come from passion projects, not necessarily classrooms, and that enthusiasm ultimately is what will drive innovation, said Make’s Dougherty.

“That’s why we’re so happy to have Nolan at Maker Faire,” he said. “To see that passion in someone’s eyes that’s been doing it for a long time — it still feels like a youthful thing, it feels like talking to a teenager after the first thing they learned, and I think you see that in so many makers.”

But it’s possible that the future Bushnell and Dougherty envision for our children may never come to pass, what with the Rapture coming Saturday and all. Then again, if makers are the ones left behind, the world might be better off, and at least one smart man will stick around.

“I think with the life I’ve led, I’m not going to be taken,” Bushnell said.

FULL SOURCE: www.wired.com/underwire/2011/05/maker-faire-nolan-bushnell/

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