The education system used to have two streams. Bright students went to schools of higher learning – universities and colleges, where, among other things, they learned how to design stuff. So-so students were filtered into professional schools, where they became plumbers, carpenters, and factory machinists. In other words, these “average” students became the makers of things. This dual educational stream – creators and makers – has served the society well.
Things changed around the 80s. Professional schools started to change their names into “universities”, readjusting their curriculum, and generally trying to look “higher end” than they really were. This coincided, of course, with the wave of job outsourcing to Asia and the resulting loss of factory jobs. Many traditional jobs fell out of fashion. At the same time, there was a tremendous uptick in people choosing the legal profession, banking, and finance.
The unfortunate outcome was that the number of people who could “hold a screwdriver” has decreased dramatically, while the numbers of “lawyers” skyrocketed. The plumber/lawyer ratio – how about creating an official worldwide index with this name? – has plunged to unhealthy lows, so much so that even in manufacturing countries like Germany even the largest and the most powerful manufacturers, such as Mercedes Benz, have difficulties filling their vacancies.
Fortunately, things are changing. Manufacturing is starting to return home. Making stuff is cool again. The DIY movement, which in many countries consists of people who don’t extract the satisfaction of making things from their day jobs, is flourishing. The education system is finally taking note.
Around the world, governments and educators are proclaiming that they will teach their young to be coders and makers of things. To assist them in this task, companies big and small have come up with innovative, low-cost computing, programming, and building platforms. Raspberry Pi. BeagleBone. LittleBits. Kano. These are the signs of changing times. Some innovative educational solutions focus on just teaching coding skills. Some go further and teach kids how to “work with their hands” and build electronic and mechatronic devices, such as robots.
One significant factor in choosing the right educational equipment or platform is the time limit available for each building exercise. In schools, one class period typically lasts between 40 and 60 minutes. Consider what has to be accomplished within this time frame: A student is supposed to grasp the objective first, assemble the hardware from available “building blocks” next, and maybe even write some code to finish the assignment. Not surprisingly, the quality and the ease of use of the “building blocks” selected by the school will greatly affect the student’s ability to accomplish his or her task or come up with creative ideas. If code writing is in order, the choice of the programming platform and language will greatly affect the student’s efficiency.
One interesting hardware and software platform holding a great education value is Tibbo Project System created by Tibbo Technology. The platform is based on colorful I/O blocks called Tibbits. Around 50 different Tibbits are available presently, and Tibbo is constantly expanding the list. Tibbits plug into a mainboard carrying a CPU and an Ethernet interface. This mainboard is programmable in Tibbo BASIC or Tibbo C – high-level, object-oriented languages that greatly simplify and speed up application development.
One other strong suit of the TPS is built-in TCP/IP networking. TCP/IP stacks are the foundation of modern communications and the Internet of Things (IOT). By creating simple Tibbo BASIC/C applications, some of them no longer than 30-40 lines of code, students are able to observe TCP/IP and other networking protocols in action and learn their inner workings – all within the time constrains of the school period.
No matter what educational platform becomes dominant, it is obvious that education around the world is making a tectonic shift towards training students in matters of programming and electronics. Of course, these efforts may yet prove to be of the “too little, too late” kind. This wouldn’t be the first time our education prepared us for the world of yesterday. It may well turn out that by the time current primary school students enter the adult life the tech landscape will have changed beyond recognition. Even in this case, educating students in tech subjects will give them a big hand in preparing for whatever comes next. Our society cannot survive on the current plumber/lawyer ratio. It’s time to change this number.