Don’t Worry; Today’s Kids Are Smarter Than You Think

Quick – what is the temperature at which water boils? Correct, 100 degrees. But what about in Fahrenheit? Yes, 212. But did you know this when you were seven years old?

Last weekend, my son and husband went to a cryogenics workshop at H3XL in Burlington, MA. And the second- and third-graders in that class were able to rattle off myriad boiling points, freezing points, and the basic molecular properties that allow liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze hotdogs.

The last time we were there, I overheard a 12-year-old schooling an MIT grad on the double helix. Admittedly, the conversation went way over my head.

And then there’s 17-year-old Sara Volz, recently featured in Wired. She won the Intel Science Talent Search for her work on growing algae that’s more efficient at making biofuels. She grew the algae under her bed.

With all the doom and gloom reporting around our failure to educate this next generation of engineers and scientists, it’s easy to overlook young talents like Volz, and even easier to assume that the younger generation can’t possibly be smarter than us. But if you look a little closer you’ll see that this isn’t the case at all.

In this week’s hardcopy of Product Design & Development Chris Fox reports on a high-school FIRST Robotics team, Team Spork. FIRST has gained huge recognition over the past several years, thanks in part to spokespeople like Black Eyed Peas’

Team Spork is in the midst of an intense six-weeks-long robotics competition unlike any other school project. In addition to building multitasking robots, FIRST teams are required to market themselves, fundraise, and reach out to potential sponsors and investors. As with any well-run business, better professional relationships lead to better products.

“If the progressing difficulty of these games is any indication, these kids are getting smarter and more intuitive,” wrote Fox in his article.

Programs like FIRST Robotics do much to dispel the “geek” factor from STEM fields. The result of that “thinker” nurturing, in my opinion, is young adults like Nick D’Aloisio who, at age 15 developed a news reading app so good that he just sold it to Yahoo for “a sum said to be in the tens of millions of dollars.”

And it’s the next generation of engineers who are pushing today’s manufactures to innovate, reinvent, and rethink the way they do things.

I recently had an interesting conversation with a manufacturer in the process of converting from 2D to 3D product design and development. They listed off to me all the usual reasons for this conversion: time efficiencies, faster time-to-market, error reductions. But then they said something more interesting: they needed to convert to attract and retain next-generation engineers, you know, the one’s growing algae under their beds and wooing sponsors with multitasking robots.

So let’s not be swept away by what we read and hear about the ineptitude of today’s youth. Innovation, vision, inspiration and aptitude are alive and well in the STEM fields, you just have to adjust your eyes.

Our youth might think differently, learn differently and go about things differently, but in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a different world out there, and I for one am excited to see what our future engineers and scientists have in store for us.

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