Teen curiosity is what top firms (and schools) are looking for

I recently attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  While I wouldn’t be able to justify travelling internationally to go, I was already in San Francisco visiting friends and family and decided it was worth the short hop to see what’s new in educational technology, robotics, and to attend the TransformingEDU events.  (Well, that plus I love tech and gadgets and I got a kick out of seeing all the weird, wonderful and inspiring new kit!)

During one of the conference events I was sitting next to a man who, as it turned out, has owned a small engineering business for over 25 years, providing services to the Department of Defence and working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).  I was doing my own thing during the break when I overheard him say something fascinating to his neighbour.  He said that he was walking around the JPL meeting interns and he asked his contact there how they identified the best intern candidates.  He expected that they were hiring undergrads out of MIT, Harvard and other top-tier schools, but his contact explained that they looked for those kids who were doing robotics and coding since they were young teens through afterschool activities, at camps or on their own. 

I was so interested I had to jump in and explain that I’d overheard what he said and could he elaborate.  He said that the top engineering groups in the country saw that the kids who were getting involved in tech through extra-curriculars or by learning online were demonstrating passion, curiosity, and a focus on problem-solving.  Not only was this true for groups like JPL, but also for cyber security firms, who were hiring 18 year olds at six figure salaries out of white-hat hacker conferences, over graduates from prestigious universities.  In his own business, he found that the ability for young people to deliver results was now “decoupled” from their academic success, and in fact he said that in his experience graduates from top schools tended to take a more academic and even theoretical view of the work rather than attacking the problems to get to results.  I asked him why he thought that was and he said that it wasn’t that the universities weren’t great, but that there was self-selection going on (by the young people) and great engineers and coders no longer needed a prestigious degree to learn the skills and to crack tough problems.

I thought this was fascinating for several reasons.

1) It validates my view that we and others in this space are providing important opportunities where young people can learn powerful skills, and develop a social network of friends who share that interest.  This can be of concrete and lasting value to the young people we serve.

2) It’s  further evidence of the revolution that is taking place in education.  Education – and employer requirements – are moving from being degree-based to being skills-based.  More on that in a future blog post.

3) It is evidence that these moves have already taken place at some of the most prestigious engineering environments.

4) It suggests that top universities are going to be looking at some of these same criteria — so our students are racking up “points” that are going to help them in their academic and professional futures.  We know from speaking to university departments that this is in fact true and that admissions departments view participation in activities like ours as something that sets candidates apart from the crowd.

This isn’t just theory, it’s already a reality.

I fully believe that our campers are going to be the next generation of innovators, and it’s gratifying to see that playing out concretely!



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