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Take care of the village people

The final day and keynote at NI Week focused on inspiring the next generation of engineers.

While the previous two days looked at new technology, products and applications, Thursday was about bringing through children from 'kindergarten to rocket science', as Leland Melvin put it. Melvin was the guest speaker – scientist, former pro footballer, engineer, astronaut and now evangelising engineering and science to the next generation through NASA's education programme.

It was an inspiring and entertaining presentation in which he pulled on the African proverb 'it takes a village to raise a child'. Here, he referred to everyone involved in the electronics and engineering industry as the 'village' that needs to nurture new talent.

The US seems to be pretty good at this. Being a geek is something to be celebrated, at least by the geeks themselves. There are numerous national and global competitions that use robotics as a means to engage children with engineering. National Instruments participates in many ways, the most obvious in providing the LabVIEW based software behind the Lego Mindstorms robotics kits. Already 3million children have experience in graphical programming.

A new version of the software, EV3, was announced and ably demonstrated by a 10 year old. Moving up a step to secondary education, NI also introduced a RIO-based controller for 'high school robotics'. This controller features the same Xilinx Zynq chip as CompactRIO. "We are going to donate one controller for every FIRST Robotics Competition team," announced Ray Almgren, NI's vp of marketing. The FIRST Robotics Competition is open to teams of 14 to 18 year olds and is stadium filling stuff in the US. FIRST also organises the Lego League for younger budding engineers.

It really is fantastic stuff. The tools are there to bring engineering to life for children, but do we use these tools enough in the UK? Do we care enough as a society about steering children towards engineering and science? It's a huge topic, too huge for one blog. But could you imagine every secondary school in the UK putting forward teams to compete for engineering challenges? We are clearly not anywhere near that situation.

Maybe the education system is outdated – learning physics from a text book is less inspiring than physically engineering projects. Or is the industry doing enough to engage with schools and promote what we do to their pupils? We are their village.

A final comment from Melvin: "Those students will be the next generation of explorers; they will be the astronauts walking on Mars one day; they will be building the robots that go to other planets. So it is endemic to this whole community of engineers, scientists, community leaders, government and all of us together to give these students everything they need to be empowered to do anything they put their minds to."

Author
Tim Fryer

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