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Inspiring Questions

November 25, 2007

Filed under: education,future,life — Terry Wohlers @ 15:26

During a recent trip to Africa, professor Deon de Beer of Central University of Technology, Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and I spoke to a group of nearly 100 kids. Most were high school age, along with a number of parents and teachers, all from a township called Soshanguve, located about 45 km (28 miles) north of Pretoria. The group convened that day to learn about opportunities and careers in engineering and manufacturing, and the vast potential of additive fabrication (AF) technology.

The two-hour youth awareness program was held at one of seven Fab Labs in South Africa. A Fab Lab is a hands-on prototyping facility targeted at young people in under-served communities. The concept grew out of the Center for Bits and Atoms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to MIT, Fab Labs offer innovative solutions to common problems and provide thriving incubators for local micro-businesses. The local communities themselves foster innovation that can lead to sustainable solutions. My experience with Fab Labs and developing communities is limited, yet I could immediately see the positive impact that they could have.

I really did not know what to expect going into the presentation. The local area experienced a power outage just before we arrived, so we were unable to use the data projector and microphone/speaker system. The program was delayed as we waited for the power to return, but it did not and the “show” had to go on. Dr. de Beer and I had prepared many images and animations to explain the benefits and applications of AF, so we were faced with using whatever we could quickly grab to explain advanced methods of rapid product development and why they might be important to the group.

Our presentations generated more than an hour of questions, many of them stimulating. A young woman asked, “I want to start a business. What advice do you have for me?” I asked what she liked to do and where she saw herself in the future. She responded by saying, “I’d like to be an engineer.” I explained that after formal education, she may want to consider contract engineering as a career and could potentially serve a wide range of companies in South Africa. I said that with some creativity and ambition, it’s possible to rise to surprising heights. It may take some time to get started, but once you do—and if you deliver quality work—jobs will come to you by word of mouth.

Another question, this time from a young man: “What are the secrets to success?” I explained that I’ve observed many successful people and their success is not a secret. You’ve got to work hard, get a good education, make many friends, and help others in need. It is important that you are honest in everything you do, have integrity, be open to new ideas, and take risks, but don’t gamble. And, if you really enjoy what you do, you won’t view it as work.

A pediatrician in the audience, who I later met, asked an interesting and challenging question. She explained that most people go through school in route to securing a job to earn money so that they can buy products, most of which are produced outside of South Africa. She asked, “What can be done in schools to change this mindset so that teachers and students consider how they might create products for themselves?” I really had not given it much thought until then and responded by saying that it begins at an early age. I believe it’s important to give kids the opportunity to be inventive by letting them play with modeling clay, 3D puzzles, Lego products, building blocks, and so on. As they get older, encourage them to use 3D content creation software, such as Cosmic Blobs and SketchUp.

The questions continued, but time ran out. I could tell that many of these kids were motivated and hungry for ideas and information. Given a little guidance, some encouragement, and access to tools, I’m certain that they will produce some impressive and unexpected results. They are the future of South Africa and I felt lucky to be a part of this special day.

1 Comment

  1. *smiles* This must have been quite an experience for you Terry. This was quite an experience for me, just reading about it. When you think about how privileged many of us are with opportunities to empower our lives using the technology that is given to us, that we easily take for granted – and realize that they are millions of others who do not have this opportunity, it makes you want to jump into a plane and provide as much knowledge, answers and equipment as possible to those who are hungry for a empowered future!

    ~ Carmen

    Comment by digitalfemme — January 3, 2008 @ 07:41