Five Fun Ways To Prepare Your Kids For Tomorrow's Tech

It’s not just a sign of old age: The world is changing faster than ever before. There are new legal paradigms, entire new countries, new power structures, and of course new technology. New tech is emerging faster than most of us can keep up with it.Did you catch the news that some doctors managed to cure a baby of AIDS? How about that we can 3d print functioning organs? Did you know that we now have humanoid robots that can walk, carry things, and balance on one foot?

Even comparatively simple devices, like smart phones, are a leap forward in personal technology that would have been nearly unfathomable just a few short years ago. Now we all have little computers in our pocket that are more powerful than early laptops. Children being born today won’t even remember a day when they couldn’t have digital media instantly delivered, or talk to friends in other countries face-to-face. Soon, they’ll think of a car that can’t drive itself as barbaric.

All of this technological acceleration comes at a price: Many old standby jobs are becoming obsolete, and the careers of the near future seem to rely more than ever on engineering, programming, and science. How can we prepare the next generation for a world where “robot technician” is a popular career path?

Schools will certainly need to change to meet the new demand for high tech careers, but a jump start on the future is within all of our grasps. Whether you want your kid or yourself to be the one to make R2D2 a reality, here are some toys and hobbies that can be the high-tech prep-kit you need to gain the skills to be a part of the new world.

5 Tinker With Arduino

The future is super-connected. No, I’m not talking about the internet. I’m talking about your toaster. The new wave in personal computing is making everything around you able to learn, communicate, and respond to commands – and when I say everything, I mean everything.

Meet the Arduino, an inexpensive and simple circuit board/processor combo designed to make anything device interactive. Arduino is a ‘prototyping platform’ that can receive signals from a variety of sensors – more are being developed all the time – and react based on the input. Some applications that have been developed are:

-Water level sensors to automate watering potted plants.

-Data visualization of real life events (a light that changes color based on the number of hits on your webpage, for example).

-Pet treat dispensers

-My personal favorite, a ‘secret knock’ detecting door-lock.

The Arduino is easy to pick up and play around with, and is a useful tool for learning how to do more with technology. It will teach you programming, electric/electronic engineering, and start you on the road to understanding the new interactive world.

Google just bought the smart-home-dreaming company Nest, creators of a learning thermostat, which is a big show of confidence in the concept of a connected home. Picking up an Arduino and tooling around with it would be a great way for adults and children alike to make sure they don’t get left out in the cold. When reactive homes inevitably leap from sci-fi to reality, you might be the person who invents the personal couch softness preference sensor!

The applications for Arduino and Arduino-like platforms are essentially limitless. Whether or not you become a leading roboticist, you’re sure to improve your life in some way by tailoring your world to fit your needs.

4 Play With Google Sketchup

Google’s intuitive 3d modeling Sketchup isn’t news anymore, but it is a beautiful gem of a program. With nothing but a mouse, Sketchup can model real or imagined creations of stunning complexity. Making a model of a simple home is as easy as clicking, dragging, and selecting from shapes. Modeling a handgun, a complex building, a motorcycle, or Jenga™ tower will require a bit of typing as well. But it’s not the ability to plan out your architectural masterpiece that gets Sketchup a place in this article. It’s the place it has in the next big phase of the manufacturing revolution: 3D printing.

We’ve come a long way from making everything by hand. Artisans once created everything in the home one by one. Then along came factories. Power tools. Assembly lines and automation. The next step in this evolution is computers that plot and create complex shapes without human intervention – but, of course, someone has to tell them what to make.

To do that you need a file of the shape you want to make. Depending on the sophistication of the printer, anything from a plastic army man to precision-milled gears and illogical shapes can be made. The limit is only your imagination, and Sketchup is so much fun, and so simple to use, that you can let your imagination run wild.

Creating in Sketchup can be as freewheeling as dragging a geometric shape into virtual existence and sculpting it to your desires. It can be as exacting as typing in the exact dimensions. You can even draw it like you might with a pen and paper and watch the program make sense of your doodle. By playing with Sketchup, you can learn how to make the first step in taking an idea and making it into a tangible object you can hold in your hand.

When anything you can dream can be made, it is the dreamer that shapes the world.

3 Make Your Own Stuff With 3D Printers

Once you have a file you want printed the next step is to get it to a 3d printer. What’s that you say? You don’t have a magical Star Trek replicator just lying around? Not to fear – you can buy one! The devices known as 3d printers come in all shapes, sizes, and price ranges.

For a first 3d printer, I recommend the MakerBot. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but it’s ideal for someone who wants a simple home solution and doesn’t want to build a printer themselves. Plus, the accessory options can’t be beat. Don’t want to spend hours on the drawing board? MakerBot makes a 3d scanner so you can replicate whatever fits on top of it.

The more DIY option is the RepRap, short (and backwards) for rapid replicator. This little beauty is a 3d printer designed to print… itself. Before visions of the robot apocalypse begin dancing in your head, don’t worry, it has no brain. What it does have is an aluminum skeletal structure you can take apart and put back together whenever something breaks, as well as a price tag less than 1/3d of the MakerBot. Ultimately customizable, the RepRap appeals to the person who really wants to get into the guts of their project. And if you want two of them, it can print its own parts.

The factors to consider when choosing a 3d printer are:

-How much space you have to spare.

-How big of objects you wish to print.

-What material you want to print with.

Fortunately for would-be consumers, 3d printers exist in a multitude of forms. Industrial models can print in almost any size, but naturally require an entire room to operate. Some printers can work in liquid metal, special epoxies and other difficult materials – even living flesh! The ones you will consider for your home, though, tend to print with low melting-point plastic. New material printers are being designed all the time, and just recently a $99 printer designed to print with chocolate (the horribly named and very exciting ChocoByte) has been introduced.

2 Compete In A Robot-Building Competition

As amazing at it seems to those not in the know, you or your kids can enroll in a robotics competition. No, this isn't an 80's style dance-off, but a tiered, division championship-style competition in which teams build robots assigned to solve specific problems and complete given tasks. The type of problems, limitations on build, and time given to prepare, vary from organization to organization. Some focus more on speed and limited resources, and others focus on raising funds and building a brand.

The goal of all of these competitions is to raise the next generation of robot makers and fire up their imaginations, while giving them real-world experience in next-world problem solving. Let's face it, learning to make a robot that can solve a Rubik's Cube or navigate a maze doesn't just happen overnight, but playing at making a robot that can stack donuts according to shape, or overcome an obstacle course, can, and with the right team it's not only fun, but an intense learning experience.

With jobs on a robot team as diverse as engineer, pilot, fund raiser and graphic designer there's a place for everyone who wants to get a feel for what it's like to work in the emerging and, let's face it, awesome field of robotics.

For a more preliminary exposure to robotics there are all kinds of robot toy kits that can teach the very basics of building task-specific little machines.

1 Learn To Code - For Free!

Computers are, for all intents and purposes, part of every aspect of our lives. But the level of computer integration in the near future will make our current level seem almost prehistoric, and being able to program them will be a sure-fire ticket to financial independence and gainful employment. Competition can be cut-throat and having a nice portfolio is a foot in the door, so getting started early is key. But how to get that experience before you get into college classes? Easy.

The beautiful thing about programming - and the part that's made possible several rags-to-riches stories in the past few decades - is that all you need to learn is a computer, a compiler, a functional brain, and a course of study. And that course of study is everywhere. It seems that everyone wants to teach you to program these days, and many of them want to do so for free! Truly, the hardest part isn't learning the logic of an “if; then; else; loop,” it's deciding what specialty to pursue once you understand it.

Code.org wants to teach your kid an hour of coding a day. W3 Schools wants to show you the basics of internet and web development. Not impressed? How about free courses from MIT and Harvard? Yes, even the big boys want to educate the world.  For several complete courses of study, check out Khan Academy's free computer programming curriculum list - I guarantee you'll be impressed.

Learning the very difficult aspects of coding, such as designing multi-tiered databases, reactive virtual reality environments, and facial recognition may require years of traditional study, but learning to make the next big smart phone app could take as little as a few months.

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