How to teach kids to use tech to help others

Encouraging your child to solve problems with technology during this time won't guarantee they’ll pursue a career in IT, but it will equip them with the problem-solving, collaboration, and soft skills they need to be successful
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Technology has always evolved faster than the education world, so when my daughters and their classmates enter the workforce in 10 years, there’s a good chance the tech skills they’re learning now may be obsolete. Artificial intelligence is already changing how we work, and many of the jobs that will be in demand in 2030 don’t exist today.

Think about how different the tech landscape is today compared to 2010, when the iPad was brand new and much too precious to hand over to a toddler. TIME Magazine’s 50 best inventions of the year list included Looxcie, a now-defunct over-the-ear camcorder device. The world went without Instagram until late 2010, when it was still a fledgling photography app.

[ Looking for tech activities this summer? Read: Programmable tanks and Raspberry Pi: Try these kids tech projects. ]

If we train the next generation of engineers by focusing only on hard skills, we’re not likely to set our kids up for long-term success. Content knowledge is easiest to automate, and we’ve already seen tech companies release tools that can auto-complete lines of code.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach kids about today’s most powerful technologies – we definitely should. But we must also teach them skills like adaptability, complex problem-solving, and teamwork that will help them in college and in the workforce, regardless of what the cutting-edge tech of the day will be.

Through my work at Technovation, a global tech education nonprofit, I have found that combining technical education with a broader sense of purpose and problem-solving is much more effective than simply teaching technology concepts and skills in a vacuum. We should be teaching students to proactively identify ways in which they can help others, and then use powerful tools such as technology to develop solutions.

When we encourage kids to think not only about how technology works but also how it can work for them and their communities, we can help them develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in a rapidly changing tech-driven future.

Tomorrow's careers call for much more than tech skills

Technical skills are undoubtedly important for seeking a career in IT, but those skills alone don’t add up to a desirable job candidate or successful professional. IT pros must be able to demonstrate a mindset of continuous learning to keep their skills up to date, and they must be self-motivated to push through inevitable failures during technical projects.

Communication skills and empathy are also crucial for managing the disagreements and conflicts that exist in any workplace. A “lone wolf” coder may face roadblocks if their work is not aligned with the broader team’s strategy or if they can’t collaborate effectively.

The pandemic-driven shift to remote work has also put a spotlight on skills like flexibility and adaptability in an uncertain environment. The world our kids will face as adults is sure to be even more precarious, so we must help them become resilient no matter what the future throws at them.

We have the opportunity to help kids develop these real-world problem-solving skills alongside their technical skills when we encourage them to apply their knowledge to solving issues that are relevant to their lives.

How to get started

There is no shortage of online coding lessons and activities available – the trick is learning how to go from passive learning to applied learning. Instead of starting with the technology, begin by asking your child what they care about that is happening around them.

Instead of starting with the technology, begin by asking your child what they care about that is happening around them.

Instead of simply asking what they’re interested in, consider questions like these:

  • What do you think about this issue?
  • What does your family value?
  • How might you want to help others?

By choosing a problem your child wants to solve, you can ground future technical lessons in a real-world context, which helps keep kids focused on longer-term projects. Solving problems that impact others helps to build empathy and can serve as a welcome break from thinking about our own stress.

The problems your child chooses to solve will vary. In previous years we’ve had Technovation participants tackle everything from children drowning and teen mental health to climate change and eldercare. The problems you choose don’t have to be lofty in order to be useful and relevant – one family recently came up with an AI-based prototype to help stop neighborhood dogs from pooping on their lawn.

To help you get started, our free Solve It Team video series offers six coding tutorials along with resources on problem identification, building a virtual team, pivoting an idea, persevering through frustration, and more.

Encouraging your child to solve problems with technology during this time won’t guarantee they’ll pursue a career in IT, but it will equip them with the skills necessary to be successful in whatever field they choose in the future. They’ll gain a deeper understanding of how the apps and devices they use every day function, which nurtures the kind of curiosity that breeds innovation.

They may still complain of boredom or feel that the work is too difficult when they run into challenges, but they will be using the open headspace created by a lack of structured activities to ask themselves crucial questions: Who am I and how can I help others?

Most importantly, they’ll be more likely to view themselves as having agency over their lives and the power to make an imprint on the world.

[ What are the key trends in IT talent? Read the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Tara Chklovski is the founder and CEO of global tech education nonprofit Technovation. After leaving aerospace engineering, she dedicated her career to empowering the next generation of innovators, problem solvers, and game changers.