Tinkering for the 21st century, join the revolution!

Our children are the black box generation. With just a swipe of a finger or a click of a button they can make miraculous things happen in an instant – cartoons will start, music will play, games will appear or a grandparent’s voice will say hello. The actions are so simple, and the results so quick and gratifying, that there is no time or incentive to question how and why their action caused the result.  They experience no sense of achievement from playing a role in these phenomenal technological processes. We have lost the art of tinkering.

In this year’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES ‘Sparks will fly: How to hack your home’ I want to share the sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity I had when I was a child playing with my telescope in my bedroom and still have now as an electrical engineer – a role which requires me to be a professional inventor. I want the young viewers and their parents to develop the confidence to take back control of the devices that surround them every day and to join me in helping to push our technology ever forward.
The wonderful thing about technology is that no matter how advanced or self-contained it becomes, some things will never change. Energy has to be made and transferred for an action to take place. Information has to be sent from one place and understood by another. The inner workings of even the most complex of computers today can be broken down into a series of steps and simple instructions.

How can we encourage our children to set aside the instant gratification of a black box and encourage them to take the slower and more challenging path of controlling every step in the process? We can turn it into play.

In a wonderful technological evolution away from the black box, developers have created affordable mini-controllers which have the potential to serve the same functions as a traditional PC computer but are small enough to sit in the palm of your hand, such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino. But the crucial difference is that to achieve the same result as typing into a computer or swiping a screen, you have to design, build and control the step by step process yourself. You have to tell this mini-controller what to do at each step, when to do it, and give it any extra tools it needs to achieve your desired result. You and your child will need to experiment with the instructions you give and use your imagination to create connections between the controller and other devices and everyday objects around you.

Some great home-hacking projects don’t even need a ready made mini-controller, you can adapt and hack things you already have around you such as smartphones, battery-operated toys, remote controls, clocks and LEDS to do fun and unexpected things.Your efforts and patience will be rewarded because the results can be magical.  Programme your fairy lights to twinkle in time to your child’s favourite song, build a remote control robot or confuse an unsuspecting sibling by turning lights on and off from outside the room.

Why is it so important to capture and direct a child’s curiosity in this way? I wouldn’t change what I do as a career for anything in the world. Every day I play, create and problem-solve with the aim of achieving life-changing results. I help ESA and NASA physicists listen to sounds coming from the far reaches of the universe, I help farmers conserve the most precious of natural resources, water, I help reduce the environmental impact of air travel and much more.

Tinkering is just engineering on a smaller scale. I want children to realise that if they take control of the devices and technology around them and use their imagination there’s nothing to stop them discovering the solutions to the world’s greatest challenges from their kitchen table, bedroom or garden shed. I want them to be inspired and motivated to think about the world around them and understand the role they can play in making it work better.

If you need some help to get started with tinkering you won’t need to look far. Hackspaces, maker faires, coder dojos and more have sprung up in community spaces, science centres and universities across the capital and the internet is packed full of opensource ideas and forums. So get stuck in and join the tinkering revolution!


Photo of audience


Tips on how to get started with tinkering

The Royal Institution (Ri) in Mayfair will transform its beautiful Georgian building into a giant hackspace aimed at 6-12 year olds for its Sparks will fly Family Fun Day on 21 February 2014. The Ri’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre is running a how to hack your own games console workshop for 11-18 year olds on Saturday 13 December.

Led by former Christmas Lecturer and materials scientist Mark Miodownik, the Institute of Making in Camden, part of University College London, runs a public programme full of masterclasses, workshops with guest experts, maker residencies and curated opportunities to make, break and repair everything from jewellery to robots.

London Hackspace is a non-profit community-run workshop in Hackney where people come to share tools and knowledge. They run a wide range of evening and weekend workshops for adults and families covering everything from 3D printing to coding, to Arduinos for beginners.

Technology will save us offers a huge range of DIY kits including step by step guides for a range of programming, design, electronics and soldering projects for all ages and all abilities to encourage people to learn how to hack at home.

Students from Imperial College London in South Kensington run FREE monthly coder dojos for children aged 8-12 on Saturday afternoons covering the very basics of programming and gaming to the more advanced.

The Blackhorse Workshop in Blackhorse Road, Waltham Forest, is a public space dedicated to making and mending and it also runs a monthly Saturday street food and makers market.


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