Hands-on technology education should start at a young age

By Virinder K. Moudgil

There are many explanations for America’s continued leadership in innovation and ingenuity, but one good example is the Soap Box Derby.

Beginning in 1934, several generations of fathers worked with their sons — only boys were allowed to enter until 1971 — on designing and building a vehicle propelled solely by gravity. While the concept was simple, there were many operations to master along the way. The boys learned about the tools and machines used to make the different parts of their carts, and they learned how to strive for the best possible outcome through trial and error.

Many Soap Box Derby competitors went on to engineering careers. They began learning at a young age about how things work and how to turn ideas into reality, and that experience made it much easier for them to keep on learning throughout their education and then their working careers.

Words from a leader
“Learn by doing — that’s my favorite principle in education,” the great Henry Ford once said.
Creativity alone does not foster innovation, nor does mastery of abstract scientific or mathematical concepts. As Ford put it, “I believe in 100 percent theory and practice. Theory without practical application is futile.”

Participation in the Soap Box Derby has been in decline for many years despite admirable efforts to keep up with the times. It is hard to compete for the attention of young people when they have so many interesting activities available right on their phones and tablets.

As a society, we must constantly search for new activities that will not only engage our young people with technology, but also provide practical experience to go along with their increased knowledge.

For example, First Robotics and Robofest are two international competitions that provide opportunities for young people to have fun while putting into action elements of computer programming and mechanical engineering. The Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) has developed several programs to get both females and minorities involved in technology at a young age. (Full disclosure: Robofest was founded at LTU, and one of the MCWT summer camps is held on our campus.)

Breaking down the barriers
Excluding girls from the Soap Box Derby for several decades is just one of many examples of how American society has placed women at a disadvantage when competing for well-paying jobs in the technology sector. Minority groups often have faced similar barriers to entry.
Many business studies have shown that diversity of gender and ethnic background enables companies to achieve better results. Furthermore, if the United States is going to respond to the increasing demand for workers with technology skills, we must cast as wide a net as possible. If we don’t find a way to attract more women and minorities to technology, today’s shortfall of technologically skilled workers will seriously impact the nation’s economy in the future.

This critique is not meant to discount the progress and evolution of American society. Far from it. As a native of India who came to the United States as a young man, I have personally benefited from the freedom and opportunity offered by our society. I am convinced that the United States remains the best place in the world to live and work.

But we can’t maintain that exalted position by standing still or by failing to address what we can do better. We must be more inclusive in technology and develop new and interesting ways to engage young people. We need to support educational opportunities in technology for our future workers at a young age.

Virinder K. Moudgil is president of Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI, where the approach to education reflects its motto, “Theory and Practice.” Lawrence Tech’s faculty is involved in several outreach programs designed to get more young people, especially females and underrepresented minorities, involved in technology at an early age.