As a result of the work I have been doing on our cloud project, I am experiencing first hand the lack of skill that we have in certain technology fields locally. One of the reasons for changing our current business and business model, is that we want the ability to take advantage of our own intellectual property and leverage what we know in our business model. But doing that is hard, as it requires a broad range of skills, and we are coming up short finding everything that we need locally.
Education is obviously key in addressing this. It is however clear that the South African school system is not currently up to the task. Now we can blame a whole lot o things for the failure of our public school system, but do not think that the private schools fare any better. We’ll have to figure out how we can use the educational resources out there, to better equip our kids. This matter is very close to my heart, as I am father to two young boys, currently aged 5 and 7. Bottom line is, we cannot leave the important task of education just up to our schools, as parents we need to be involved on a daily basis.
Being a dad, I have started looking around to see what options are available for teaching our kids some technology skills, and helping them develop key skills like math and science. One needs to tread carefully here, so that we do not expose our children to certain technologies prematurely. But there are loads of things we can do to peak their interest. I am not a professional educator, and this guide is based around information for parents living in South Africa, so your mileage may vary. This may sound like it is for boys only, but there are plenty of girly projects too.
For a start, I love doing basic, fun science experiments with my kids. This teaches them about chemistry, physics, math and project management. They learn valuable life skills while doing something fun. You do not have to rack your brain for ideas, I use Experilab as my first stop. These guys have an amazing range of simple experiments that you buy online or at their shop in Pretoria. Even my local pharmacy stocks their experiments. The kits usually contains the chemicals you’ll need, you just need to provide simple household items like bowls, spoons etc. We have made bouncing balls, grown crystals, made chemicals that glow in the dark, simple electric motors and loads more. The online shops also sells all the lab equipment you may need, such as tubes, glass holders, magnifying lenses etc. Each kit can be done in 30-45 minutes, so you do not have long to wait for results.
I love doing a bit more challenging projects too, especially items that take a bit longer to complete, to also teach the kids the virtue of patience. These usually involve a lot more building, and we involve mom too. Developing the kids’ visual art skills are important too, so once we built something, mom helps with decorating it. For kits that allow a bit more free play, and outdoor time, look at the Dala Junior Tradesman kits. These kits use real bricks and mortar to help kids build houses etc, outdoors.
Adding to their skills, means letting them get some hands on time with real tools. One afternoon, the boys and I went shopping for real tools. Dad bought them a portable tool chest (get one at Plasticland) and then we added some essential screwdrivers, a hammer, a saw, duct tape, nails, glue, string, spray paint, sanding paper, screws, gloves, safety goggles etc. Next we added some wood and PVC pipe, plus some basic castor and normal wheels (get these from Chamberlain or Builders Warehouse). For projects to build using these tools and materials, I bought a series of books. Here a list from Kalahari.com:
The books provide us with the ideas for our projects. We have built catapults, blow dart guns, coke fountains and loads of other fun toys. Once the building is done, mom helps with decoration. The process I use is quite simple. I let the kids page the books, to select a project, then I vet it for age appropriateness, time and cost. Once we have agreed on a project, we make a list of things we have and things we need to shop. Bare in mind these books use US measurements, so be prepared to adapt dimensions and find alternative products (part of the fun I say!). A shopping expedition gets mounted with our list, and when we get back home, the building starts. These projects may require a day or two to finish, or an entire Saturday, so plan accordingly and set the correct expectation. Be prepared for loads of questions, and try your best to answer them, or Google for info.
The above processes helps with the major and minor motor skills, developing their hand/eye co-ordination. A big trap to avoid are table devices such as iPad’s. This does not mean that we do not let them use tablets, but try to limit the amount of “flat screen time” (tablets and TV) to no more than 45 minutes per day. My kids love Lego blocks, so on the tablets we use companion apps with additional build plans for the blocks we have.
Proficiency with technology will be come key for our children. By this, I do not mean the simple ability to start a computer and use office productivity software (that is important too), but ways to manipulate and interact with technology. Here’s a simple analogy. We need to teach our children work processing as a skill, not Microsoft Word. We need to teach them how to use a spreadsheet, not just Microsoft Excel. They must learn a programming language, and understand some basic electronics. The point here is not to turn everyone into engineers, but to get everyone more comfortable with technology. My house is end-to-end covered by wireless, each person in the household own an iPad, there are several laptop computers, several servers and the home theatre. All the technology is integrated. The home theatre can be controller by smartphones, movies and music can be streamed to any computer, phone or tablet. Everything is connected to the Internet for news, movies etc. In future, more homes will look like this and be even more connected. The technology should not scare us or our children. Technology will become more prevalent in our workplaces so we need a basic understanding of how these devices work, and how to interact with technology. For me personally, proficiency in the basic principles of programming is important, as well as a basic understanding of electronics, and the interaction between electronics and software.
Do not be afraid to shop online, and remember, it is most likely cheaper to buy directly from the overseas vendor. If you want to shop for an educational toy online, and they do not offer either shipping to South Africa, or take South African credit cards as payments, then you can services such as MyUS to handles ordering, payment and shipping for you, via their concierge services. Shipping is usually quite quick, my overseas packages arrive, delivered to my door (if that is your selected shipping option) within 5-10 working days.
My first purchase in the electronics space was a Sparkfun Inventors kit. This can be bought online locally from Netram or directly from SparkFun in the USA. It includes the amazing little Arduino Atmel based microprocessor system, with loads of components such as wires, motors, lights etc. The kit includes everything you need to build 15 projects, teaching kids the basics of electronic circuits and microprocessor programming. The Arduino system is a roaring success story all on its own. Developed by professors at an Italian university as a teaching tool, these modular systems have sparked a whole industry of projects and add-on boards. These systems power anything from Hydroponic growth systems, to 3D printers. There are loads of fun Arduino based kits around, resulting in fun, interactive toys that kids can build themselves, while learning. Simple Arduino projects include a basic light circuit, where a little LED light is turned on an off using software. You can then experiment (the kit shows you how) by seeing what effects a change in the software will have on the simple light circuit. Circuits take about 10 minutes to build, and the Arduino is powered and programmed from your Window, Mac or Linux PC’s USB port.
Next up, we have the revolution that is the Raspberry Pi mini computer. This differs from the Arduino above, in that it is a mini computer system. Using a USB keyboard, mouse and an HDMI capable monitor, the Raspberry Pi is a very low cost computer. So, how cheap is low cost? I bought a Kano computer, which is a Raspberry Pi with all the cables, software and a keyboard and mouse for US 99 when they launched via Kickstarter. You can now pre-order the kits at USD 129, or surf over to Netram and buy the Pi plus all the goodies locally. This computer attaches to a flat screen TV or computer monitor via an HDMI cable. It runs a Linux operating system, optimized for kids, with games and development tools installed. The revolution here is that you have a small, low cost computer that can do loads of useful stuff. The games on the Kano are created using the Scratch programming language developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This means that not only can the kids play the games, but they can change them using the Scratch tools to create new or different games. There is a wonderful video from TED Talks where Mitch Resnick explains the idea and applications of the Scratch language.
I saved the best for last! All of the above sounds great, but what about kids, already in school battling with Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Economics or Entrepreneurship? You need Khan Academy. This amazing, free site only requires a Google or Facebook account, and it unlocks a world of training resources for kids and parents. I’d suggest that parents surf over to the parents and tutors page to get familiar with the system and how it operates. The bottom line is this, let’s assume your youngster is struggling with Geometry, specifically the angles of triangles. You can find the appropriate category from the index, and surf down to a page with a series of worked practise questions. If your child cannot complete the exercises, there is a handy, 5-15 minute video tutorial that they can then watch. They can then try the practise questions again. The system assumes mastery of a subject if you can complete 10 questions in a row, while scoring 100%. Best of all, mom and dad can have an interface where children of different ages (like mine) can have their individual progress and activity level tracked.
I know this is quite a mouthful, and it seems very technology focused. Be open-minded, take a look and see what works for you. All you need is a basic computer (get a CloudGate, they are super cool!) or some free time with your kids, to help them have fun and learn. I’d love to hear your feedback on this, and what your experiences with your kids are when you try this. Happy learning!