After working in the tech industry for the past umpteen years I can sometimes get a little overconfident in my tech know-how. But nothing knocks me off my admittedly short geek high-horse than stories of uber whiz-kids changing the world one open source project at a time. Driving into work yesterday (yes, some of us still do that—on occasion) I heard an interview on the radio with just such a kid.

 

Quin Etnyre, a 12-year-old technological wunderkind from northern California, not only develops and designs electronic products (yes I said products); he also teaches classes to super and not-so-super- tech-savvy adults, some more than double his age. In the interview, Quin shared how he leveraged open source software and online communities to teach himself to code and create DIY electronic starter kits, which he now sells. (His methane-detecting “GasCap”—aka  “fart detector”—is available on his website).

 

It turns out Quin isn’t alone; the growing availability of cheap hardware combined with the continued proliferation of free software and DIY communities and spaces is fueling an emerging groundswell of young hackers curious and driven to discover and invent the next digital doo-hickey.

 

In fact, the most recent issue of Popular Science includes a story on this growing trend. The article “A  12-Year-Old’s Quest to Remake Education, One Arduino At A Time” features Quin and another inspiring young maker: seasoned YouTube star Sylvia Todd who is also 12-years-old. Her web series “Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show,” which she started with her Dad in 2010, has garnered over 1.5 million views and won her a trip to the White House Science Fair in April where she shared her painting robot with President Obama.

 

At the heart of this story is the growing need to reach an increasingly tech savvy group of kids and engage them in a different type of learning that includes a more hands-on, interactive, gadget-driven approach. Some of these initial outreach efforts have been driven by DIY electronics retailers like SparkFun and Adafruit Industries. For example, Adafruit created a badge system to award kids for mastering tasks like soldering and programming. The PopSci article quotes Adafruit founder Limor Fried: There is a worldwide demand from young people to learn more, share more, and become the next generation of scientists and engineers.”


Retailers aren’t the only ones taking notice. Companies like Intel celebrate the work of the best and brightest science, math and engineering students through the annual Intel Science Talent Search. Non-profit organizations like Hacker Scouts and Maker Corps have also been expanding their efforts to harness the passion for developing new technologies by younger and younger kids. Even some educators are starting to re-think how they engage and inspire these bright minds. Recently Quin presented an electronics lesson to more than a dozen principals and teachers from his school district. His lesson highlighted not only his penchant for electronics but also his passion for transforming education into a fun, engaging, and hands-on experience. And, as a result, the SparkFun education team will train a group of teachers this fall.

 

So all this talk about techie kids prompted me to wonder how you embedded developers and designers got your start.

  • How old were you when you first developed an interest in technology? Were you like Quin and Sylvia?
  • What was your first design project?
  • For those of you with children, are they following in your footsteps as a maker, tinkerer, developer, or technical genius?