Jun 19, 2012

Raising an Engineer on the Cheap (Part 1)

This is directed to those parents out there with a child with an obvious affinity for math and science, a definite aspiration for engineering, and a parent (yeah that's you) with no clue about how to personally support their growth as an engineer other than to shrug your shoulders as they head out the door and say "heck, they've forgotten more math than I ever knew!" I like to call that the "my teenager knows more than me" approach, and I think that's pretty much giving up. Fortunately, I think there are several ways that you ("dumb old mom") can actually stimulate your child's growth

"heck, they've forgotten more math than I ever knew!"
-Parents about Kids These Days

This first piece will be an introduction to computer aided drafting or "CAD." Back in they day (many thousands of years ago, back when my parents lived) folks would have great ideas, write them down on a napkin, and then finish lunch. Back at the office, if the idea was decent, it would be taken to the drafting board - a physical drawing board where blueprints were created. These blueprints would have all the detail and measurements needed to go out and physically construct that idea or product.

Today, engineers still jam out ideas on napkins, but back at work they take them to the computer and digitally draft them up. This computer aided drafting offers many advantages, not the least of which is the fact that any Joe with a computer can theoretically perform professional drafting activities without the need of an expensive engineering studio. I also can't image the amount of pencil smudges that would show up in random places!

Unfortunately, though professional drafting programs are nearly entirely digital, they are still crazy, crazy, expensive. Most firms and universities with engineering programs have licenses of Autocad Inventor, SolidWorks, ProEngineer, or some other professional quality design platforms. If your child is in a Project Lead the Way class, he'll be using Autocad Inventor (which is a great platform).

For the rest of us, there is a very nice free platform which you can use to teach your son or daughter all the great things they'll need to know as a budding engineer.

I'm talking, of course, of Sketchup, and here is what I want you to do...


I'm talking to you Mrs. "They've forgotten more than I'll ever know" Louise: do not download this program yourself. Have your son/daughter do it for themselves. If there was one thing I did over and over again without any guidance in college it must have been downloading programs and installing them on my computer with nary an instruction manual to be found. (Ok, I may have done some more things without any guidance in college...) Forcing your kid to be comfortable downloading software is an important lesson.

Realistically, you've already relinquished control of your computer to your kids a while ago, so this should be no problem. Remember, you want to do as little work as possible but still seem smart.

Step 2: Have your kid download Sketchup

Which can be found by clicking here. Download and install, that is their first task.

A Box with a Hole in it

Step 3: The Box

This is where you get to play smarty-pants. Once they have the program installed, tell them they have to create box with a circular hole through it. DO NOT HELP THEM, this is part of the challenge. Probably, they'll figure it out rather quickly. When they are done, ask them to show it to you - you don't have to be a genius to know what a box with a hole in it looks like. Whatever you do, don't just droll over your kids amazing achievement "holy cow honey that's so cool, you're so much smarter than I ever was at your age..." STOP, remember, this is you giving your kid a task, you can be proud on the inside!

Step 4: The First Project

Once your kid has shown you a box with a hole in it, find something "boxy" in the house and hand it to them. "I want you to make this now, in as much detail as possible." If you have an iphone, that's perfect. Try not to give them something with curves - curves are pretty tough on first time drafters, they just are. Stick to right angles and flat surfaces. Again, you don't have to be an engineer to grade his effort - if you gave her an iphone and she has drawn something that looks like a blackberry, well, she did it wrong. Even when she says she's done the first few times, tell her it needs more detail. Unless she's the most gifted drafter in the world, it could always use more detail, and, again, it sends the message to her that you may actually have the upper hand here (1 point - mom). 

Step 5: Advanced Stuff

Once your kid has shown they can handle a simple household object. Give them a big project. Modeling the kitchen is great. Probably at this point he/she has starting taking off in new directions modeling whatever it is they want to model. This is great - remember they are building skills they will definitely use in the coming years. If you want to really push them, tell them to model the house TO SCALE. 

That's it! You really don't have to do anything as the parent and you've given your kid an incredible tool for preparing his mind for engineering. Good luck parents, don't ever be afraid of stepping up to your "so smart" kids and pushing them.

More ideas on raising an engineering child in coming posts!

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