Being an art kid: finding the technology inclined outside a STEM classroom

By Stefania Kaczmarczyk, original article here.

It’s the holiday season again.  That strange time when I pray Texas decides to be fickle and stay warm so I don’t end up stranded on the road due to some freak ice storm on the way to see my parents.  It’s also the one time of the year I can revert to an adult child, as I pathetically follow my mother around acting as though I’ve lost all knowledge of basic motor skills.  You know what I’m talking about.  Life is hard and work is tough, but mom will make you a grilled cheese if you jut that bottom lip out just enough.  It’s also a time when I’m reminded of how terrible my entire family is with computers.

Why does this matter? Well, to preface, I am the only person in my family that works in technology.  The only one.  You’d have to climb pretty far out on the family tree to find someone with more than a passing knowledge of a keyboard.

Many of my colleagues have legacy stories.  Their parents worked in the industry and had some old computers lying around and thus began the epic of these little geniuses.  They were groomed into this engineering marvel as their parents guided their hands like Marie and Irene Curie pioneering discoveries in the radioactivity field.  My parents are brilliant and dedicated people, they taught me about hard work and perseverance, but they are not engineers.  We do not talk about my job around the turkey unless it’s some broad analogy of what I do.  My sister teaches history at a college and my mom happens to love all things history and has a steel trap memory for it.  My brother wants to be a paramedic and my dad is not only an accomplished nurse, but teaches the subject.

Me? Well I’ve run out of parents at this point, but my four-year old niece has decided she wants to build things like Tony Stark so there is hope!


My only hope (and niece) happens to be an accomplished artist as well

My earliest recollection of a computer was memorizing the order of the floppy disks needed to install the operating system.  I was seven and the colored cartridges were way cool.  I’ve been socially engineering passwords out of my parents since I was ten, but that was just so I could play my online games.  In high school the robotics teacher tried to recruit me to the program, but all I knew was that I loved art and robotics was for boys.  I kept with the art until the end of my freshman year of university when I realized I wasn’t happy.  A friend of mine listened to my woeful story, shook his head, and said why don’t you go into engineering.  Fast forward seven years and I don’t have an engineering degree, but I found a happy compromise to advanced math.

My story isn’t worst of the early life identity crisis, but it begs the question of how do you reach those that don’t even realize they want to know more? My discovery was a long and probably unnecessary one, but my parents didn’t know what to look for.  They could talk to me all day long about history, literature, or medicine, but computers? Eh, you turn them on right?

So how do you foster the students whose parents are nurses? Students who spent the first fourteen years of their life thinking they will follow in those footsteps (like I did), only to find out the sight of blood creates an unhealthy fainting relationship with hard floors?

Kids and teens today have more opportunities than ever to enter technology.  We have app programmable robots, circuit toys, hour of code, summer camps, Minecraft and online courses.  The local IBM center in Dallas hosts a yearly week-long camp for girls to introduce them to STEM with such projects as paper shoes and hydrogen cars.  Usually these girls are already in technology programs or related to an IBMer, but a few trickle in because a teacher sees something in them that they don’t.  And those are the kids I’m taking about!

The Girls of GIGAWOT 2015 

So again, how do you unearth the deeply buried diamonds? The biggest brick of muck to wear away is the same problem I ran into: robotics is for boys.  Computers are for boys like cars are for boys, like power tools and rocket science is for boys.  You know?  The fields we all know are for everyone, but most little girls are not to keen on without some coaxing.  Luckily unlike vehicles, working in technology is a relatively clean practice so an easier sell than say being up to your elbows in grease.

Go into every single class you can, not just the ones that are STEM focused.  I was a nerdy bookworm winding my way through advanced English and you wouldn’t find a trace of me in a calculus class.  Math is an obvious choice, a group of literature students that have managed to meticulously breakdown the formula for a perfect rhetorical argument, not so much.  If mentors had gone looking in a math, science, or robotics class they would have missed me and a wealth of other students that went on to work in technology.

Find out what the group is passionate about, and turn it into a problem.  I’m speaking from a programming perspective here, because that is what I do and what I love.  Let’s be honest programming is all about problem-solving.  It’s also about creating more problems and breaking your own code.  It’s perhaps one of the most masochistic fields out there as well as a source of unending memes.

Now think of how many people love to find solutions like some daily crossword puzzle.  For example, I spoke to a group of fashion design majors one summer.  These people are great with their hands, meticulous about detail, and carry a tactile knowledge of the world I can only dream of.  They’re also inventors.  Like the young girls learning to make shoes from paper, the best approach is to ask them what they can do and what they wish they could do. A programmable robot might not seem cool to ten-year-olds, but a programmable dress?  Now we’re talking.  When technology becomes part of the solution, it’s a necessary step to reaching their goals. A jacket that can charge a phone using solar technology? Gold mine. Children love playing around with the scientific theory and teenagers enjoy flash and dialogue.  Sometimes it takes a little coaxing to get them talking, but I’ve always walked away with a new look at old problems.

Never be afraid to be that adult child. I’m not saying turn into a big baby like I do with my mother every Thanksgiving, but I am saying don’t be afraid to have more than a little fun.  Every year I do Engineers Week with colleagues in my age range and above.  The ones having the most fun? The former parents with kids off in college who now have fond memories of stepping on Legos in the middle of the night and sifting through living room furniture forts.  I’ve watched as an unfortunate group of fresh out of sales school male reps got the worst fashion makeovers of their life and still played along.  Why? Because it kept that sassy bunch of pre-teen girls learning.  As Amy noted, we’re always in charge at work that it’s sometimes hard to switch that mode off.  Make it look fun and easy and the girl who thinks programming is for boys may just realize programming is for her.  And the best part? Let them teach you something.  I love playing the fool just to get them to learn something in an effort to outsmart the adult.

So the moral of my story? It’s never to late to reach anyone.  It’s never too far into a path to take a fork.  I learned my first real programming language at age 20.  So don’t just focus on the young or those with a natural inclination. Look for mentorship opportunities in the less obvious places and faces, these kids need mentors and outlets just as much as the women who took time off to raise a family and now want to get back into the job market do.  These are people that weren’t raised on laptop computers and Internet everywhere, but are just as eager to devour all of the information you have.  Nothing is more humbling and wonderful for me than teaching a woman who thinks programming is beyond her reach how to deploy her first ‘Hello World’ with no effort at all.

The number of smartphone users is slated to pass two billion users next year.  That’s two billion people that have yelled at their Internet because their connection was shoddy or two billion people that had to learn a nifty trick to hard reset their phone because some app crashed.  That’s two billion problem-solvers out there, how many are learning how to solve problems with tech?

I often hear this mantra,“I don’t have an engineering degree. I can’t do this.”

I don’t have one either and I do it anyways.  So can you.

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