Raising Baby Engineers

Dec 1, 2010

by Tamara Wilhite Technical and Fiction Writer

I've read whole books about how environment shapes the minds of children. What they are exposed to in their formative years guides how they will grow up. A child listening to Mozart for several hours a day is not guaranteed to grow up to be Chopin. However, a child who never hears music will never grow up to replace Yanni. If you wish a certain outcome, you must lay the groundwork for that possibility to arise.

With this in mind, my husband and I began debating long ago how to maximize the odds that our children will grow up to be engineers. Yes, we are digital in personality and might have trouble raising an analog child. Yes, we are both engineers. Hence, we hope our children follow in our beliefs and— eventually—career paths. What on Earth will we do if one kid ends up a dancer instead of a circuit designer? We'll still love them, but we might not understand them.

We are not doing this for purely selfish reasons. Engineering is a high-paying profession that will never go away. If we can direct them toward engineering, they will more likely prosper in life than, say, as a potter living in a Tennessee commune. Or, perhaps, as a failed rock star. The best-laid plans can be laid to rest with a single small disaster, but it helps to have a plan. Failure analysis and risk assessment are key skills of engineers.

Fractal Pattern Poster

Forget Noah's Ark and Winnie the Pooh nursery decorations. Put up fractal pattern posters. No, you do not have to spend inordinate amounts of money to buy them off the Internet. Download the freeware. Enter variables until you get a pattern you like. Color code variables until the poster matches the drapes or the wall paint. We printed out ours on a high-quality printer and had them laminated at OfficeMax. You could have an office supply place blow them up to full poster size, if you're willing to maximize the mathematical pattern recognition in your newborn. Babies like bright colors and patterns. Our daughter stared at her fractal pattern posters for minutes at a time by the time she was a month old.

By six months of age, your child is almost crawling. They are certainly exploring the world by touch at this time. Old keyboards provide interesting stimulation. Press on a key, and it makes a clicking noise. Furthermore, it is textured and has many crevasses to explore. Old mice are also good toys. Better yet, if you have any old, worn mouse covers left over, your child may have a new snuggle toy.

By a year old, your child has seen many toys with buttons. Hence, anything with buttons becomes a target. We kept our daughter from swiping and chewing on our real remote controls by getting old, big ones. Remote controls meant for the elderly are especially good, and are abundant at flea markets. Dollar store squeaky remote toys are a close second choice.

Nonfunctional calculators with large keypads also work well as toys at about one year of age. Keep one on your desk or table. Your child will want to play with what Mommy and Daddy are playing with. When that curious hand reaches up over the edge of the desk, put the expendable calculator at his or her fingertips. The expendable calculator goes down and will likely be taste-tested. We learned how useful "nonessential" calculators were. We'd had a good calculator succumb to water damage—drool, actually. I suppose it wasn't designed to tolerate that kind of abuse. We didn't even discover the damage until the function keys all came up as the numbers 5 and 8 when pressed. Perhaps the excessive vibration tests of our toddler were the cause of the circuit failure. We could never be certain of the cause.

Around 2 years old, kids stop taste-testing every toy. At this point, old control panels are marvelous things to introduce to your child. Whether you scour a salvage yard for an old avionics control panel or check your IT department's throwaway stack, it's easy to find one. Knobs, switches, and buttons are all there to manipulate. Better yet, there's no consequence!

When you give your kid his or her own "computer" is up for debate. Do you give them a toddler computer that teaches numbers and letters, only to see them turn into sedentary geeks? Or do you wait until your child's preschool sends home a note that your child doesn't have his/her laptop like the rest of the class? The debate about children and computers is not a problem if you keep the junk heaps like Nintendo and PlayStation away from them. A lump on a log conquering alien worlds is less likely to send probes to alien worlds than is a child who has had graphics software and student version Mathematica to play with.

Our daughter received her first computer at age 3. We included preschool educational programs, typing programs, and interactive story games. Then, she was taught how to use the Microsoft Paint. She was inserting and running her own game CDs by age 4. Computer literacy may come for her before the literary kind.

Legos are wonderful toys to introduce at the same time other children begin showing an interest in blocks. Legos are superior in that they do not fall apart as easily when knocked over, they teach more hand-eye coordination while being snapped together, and they have programmable versions you can introduce by age 5. (Or, for the more mechanically minded, buy Capselas.) And your child has become familiar with the concepts of programming before they will have learned to spell the word.

The greatest advantage of raising an engineer through environmental factors is that these toys are not gender-specific unless parents choose to view them as such. Our second child, a boy, has begun dismantling old remote controls his sister had played with a few years earlier. And the parents can have fun with these activities, whereas infantile toys will quickly wear out both parents' and children's interest.

Engineering is not just the wave of the future. Engineering is how we will make that future. Children are our future, and they will be our future engineers. Don't we owe them an upbringing that maximizes the odds they will be designing the technology of tomorrow?

My husband and I began debating long ago how to maximize the odds that our children will grow up to be engineers.