Kids Change the Channels

April 6, 2008
If You Want to Reach Children, You Need to Be Where They Are
By Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

In its heyday, the trade show was a place to demonstrate your expertise and product features to old customers and meet new ones. Hands were shaken. Contracts were signed. Deals were made. Machines were sold. The trade show was a viable distribution channel.

Time changes everything.

On the ropes and gasping for breath, many trade shows have passed the belt to more frequented distribution channels. Customers will choose the channel. It’s your job to meet them there.

Children are a lot like customers. No, wait. Children are customers. And what they’re looking to buy are career paths.

Just like we’ve recognized changing distribution channels, we must recognize the changing way that this next generation chooses its professional pursuits.

Time was when students were drawn to a profession at Career Day in school or from watching the moon landing on television. Well, school and television have gone the way of the trade show.

If you want to reach children, you need to be where they are. I haven’t even said it yet, and you already know where that is. Duh!

What are kids doing there? According to the 2007 American Kids Survey from Mediamark Research and Intelligence, a New York-based consumer research firm, nearly eight in 10 (78%) children age 6-11 say they play games online. The next closest activity done online was school/homework at slightly more than one-third (34%).

A media whirlwind over the lack of future engineers has been stirring and rising like a funnel cloud. It touched down at the U.S. House Science Committee hearing that marked the 50th anniversary of its founding on the heels of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik.

In testimony, Bill Gates asked Congress for reform of math and science education, as well as visa reform for highly skilled workers. The Microsoft co-founder told Congress that 59% of doctoral degrees in science and engineering from U.S. institutions are awarded to temporary residents, who then return to their home countries.

My contributions in Control Design and on ControlDesign.com acknowledge U.S. machine builders’ concerns over a thinning pipeline of new engineers and discuss some of the programs and organizations that are developing science and engineering skills in American youths.

But there’s a problem. The children participating in these programs are the children who would have had an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) anyway. Yes, these programs have a documented impact on ushering more females and minorities. And yes, these programs are great for kids who are interested in STEM activities.

My son and I attended the FIRST Robotics Challenge 2008 Midwest Regional in Chicago, where we were amazed by engineering feats of the competing high school students. We even recognized a couple of competing teams from the geographic area where we live. After the competition, I returned home and spoke with the father of a student athlete from one of the high schools represented at the FIRST competition.

Neither he nor his son had ever heard of FIRST. This is anything but a slam of FIRST or that particular FIRST team. The competition was incredible. The robots built by those teenagers were amazingly sophisticated. And they’re fortunate to have an organization like FIRST in which to realize their potential.

But for every participant in FIRST, or the Junior Engineering Technical Society or Project Lead the Way, 80 other kids are at home playing games online and looking for the cheat code that will unlock the gates to a career path.

Is that lightbulb beginning to brighten above your head yet?

Killing zombies and blowing up enemy fortresses are, at some level, good fun. Why can’t we create an engineering video game that is just as entertaining?

Why can’t we make it available to kids in the one place where we know they’ll find it—the Internet.
There. I’ve said it.

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