technology courses advice for parents of teenagers
April 30, 2014 3:02 PM   Subscribe

My neighbor has young teenage children and asked me what tech-related material they should be studying in school to assure themselves of the best employment opportunities in the future. I would like to be able to give her the most informed answer possible, so I came here for assistance. What would you tell at 13-year-old who asks you what she or he should be sure to learn about to have the widest career options going forward?
posted by ranebo to Education (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Programming and math. No specific language, because 8-10 years from now, who the hell knows what people will be programming in. But it will give them a good base from which to learn specifics.

Also, writing. Not flowery and literary, but they should know how to communicate a concept that they understand to someone who doesn't understand it. That is always a useful skill -- and it is a skill, and it can be learned by 90-plus percent of people, especially if they start as teenagers.
posted by Etrigan at 3:13 PM on April 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

The tech field moves too quickly to be able to predict what will be in demand in the job market in 10 years. If I were advising a motivated 13 year old who thought this was what they wanted to do, I'd tell them to get a Linux system and learn how it works from the ground up. This would cause them to learn a lot of different skill sets, that should help put them where they need to be, as far as having the flexibility and basic understanding of computers, to learn whatever they need later.

As far as school goes, I don't think that high schools are really strong in this kind of preparation. Intelligent adolescents tend to think that no one can teach them anything (well, some do), but I'd urge them to consider that it really is worth their while to learn fundamental math thoroughly, and to learn how to write clearly; that is, they should pay attention to the normal high school curriculum, but supplement it with the many excellent resources for computer science such as MIT Open Courseware.
posted by thelonius at 3:14 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Microsoft Office Suite particularly Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. Adobe Creative Suite particularly Acrobat, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. HTML and Javascript.
posted by vegartanipla at 3:14 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Systems neurobiology.

Because once we get over the bubble that is CandyCrush, technology will eventually be aimed to interact with humans in a much more meaningful manner. To push that envelope, the good techies will need to have an understanding of how humans interact with technology, which is fundamentally though the sensory nervous system. Aim to understand how humans interpret and interact with the world around them, and you will have a deep understanding of what tech needs to accomplish.

That's more than you wanted to know, but -- for the broadest career opportunities, broaden your knowledge base. Biology is a good place to start.
posted by Dashy at 3:29 PM on April 30, 2014

They should take enough graphic design courses to know how to converse with designers. They don't need to be able to necessarily design everything themselves but their lives will be infinitely easier if they have the vocabulary to speak designer fluently. Basic design knowledge, basic typography knowledge and basic print or web production knowledge.

This will also provide them with some ancillary skills like being able to make a resume that doesn't make a hiring managers eyes bleed, and really to get noticed. My resume is really boring, but formatted very well, with a pleasing, easy to read font that is kerned properly. I've gotten comments at every single job interview I've ever done regardless of the rest of the process.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:32 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Teach them how to make slick, polished PowerPoint presentations. Nothing can take a person farther in life than learning how to hustle.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:29 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

What would you tell at 13-year-old who asks you what she or he should be sure to learn about to have the widest career options going forward?

This is an interesting question. We could focus on academic disciplines (Math and Programming are important kids!) or what employers might want (MS Office, Adobe's suite), but the real answer is being a builder, a maker of something. The rest will follow from there. If she wants to build houses, learn how to use a CAD. If she wants to make robots, learn how to program an arduino setup. If she wants to make music, learn some PD. If she wants to make furniture, learn how to use a 3D printer. And while she is making something - it's ok if it's not perfect. It's ok if things break or the computer burns up. It's ok if things are really, really bad and the computer blows up. Mistakes teach more than lucky shots ever will. That's part of making.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:30 PM on April 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

You want the best employment opportunity? Learn how to start and run your own business.
posted by Wild_Eep at 4:57 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Math. But not just what gets taught in school, but more proof-based or problem-solving math that can't be done by rote. Being able to think like this provides a solid foundation for both math itself, and fields like CS, engineering, and other sciences.

That said, if she's really gung-ho about another technical area, she's better off pursuing and honing that interest than forcing herself to do math if she's not really into it.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 5:04 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think thelonius has the right idea.
posted by zscore at 5:06 PM on April 30, 2014

I will come at this differently: tell them to buy the kids Raspberry Pis. They likely will pick up a lot of Linux knowledge and maybe learn how to program.

Math has been mentioned. Part of the value there is in problem solving and persistence. The logic part is also very helpful in many fields.

There is a high correlation between musical training and hi-tech excellence. So music might be a worthwhile option.

If you accept the positions of some writers that the future jobs will favour those who can work with Artificial Intelligence/knowledge bases (human-machine partnership), then the kids should learn how to find knowledge and how to exploit it.

If I could go back in time, I would really master statistics: all the data being gathered from every field ends up going through a statistical analysis.

I suspect that other than math, the topics I have suggested won't be offered at high school.
posted by PickeringPete at 5:33 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm in a creative/tech field. I agree mostly with Brent Parker, and also with Etrigan. Everyone in the media/government is frantically focusing on qualifications, but the truth is that the most employable people are the ones who are able to problem-solve, work in a team, fail gracefully, not give up, and be creative with technical things (whether that's programming, or graphic design on a computer, web design, or building a robot) and more. Look around your city and see if there are any maker-lab type places - they often run summer camps. A good one will teach kids the sorts of skills I listed above, as well as being really fun and hands-on, and produce something that feels meaningful to the kid. Yes, this is outside of school, but it supplements school in ways that many schools struggle to provide for reasons out of their control.

In terms of what to study in school, I would suggest math, science, and especially computer programming if its offered. Studying programming doesn't mean you are going to grow up to be a programmer, but its a great gateway skill that teaches kids to look at technology actively, not passively consuming electronic things and media delivered through technology.
posted by Joh at 5:35 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

what tech-related material they should be studying in school

By "tech" do you mean Information Technology specifically, or STEM-type careers more broadly?

Regardless, a 13-year-old today will want to have a 4-year university degree to ensure the best employment opportunities in the future. So most of what they need to be doing during high school is getting themselves to their senior year in a position to be accepted into a decent school in the tech-related major of their choice. That means:

1. 4 years of the standard college-track math sequence through Calculus AB at least and 4 years of your basic sciences including AP biology, chemistry, and physics.

2. I'd recommend a programming class as soon as s/he can take one: it's one of those things that, yes, can be self-taught, but will be much smoother going if there's structure and resources when laying the foundations that can then be used as a launching pad to individually explore more challenging projects and concepts over the high school years. If they offer an actual programming class in middle school, that's golden.

3. A digital media class at some point in high school.

Beyond that, it's hard to say without knowing what the district's offerings are, and honestly I don't think the specifics matter that much at the middle/high school level. If your HS offers a lot of math/science electives and the kid has to chose between taking Statistics or Environmental Science or Intro to Engineering, there's no wrong answer: kid will still be able to pursue a degree in computer programming or chemical engineering or biotechnology if that's what s/he wants to do in college, provided the GPA and test scores are there, and regardless of which techy "extras" s/he takes in the meanwhile. Most engineering graduates won't have had the opportunity to take Intro to Engineering in HS and so it obviously doesn't make or break their college, let alone post-college, opportunities. The biggest advantage of having those sorts of exposure opportunities in HS is that kid can figure out "hey, I really dig this particular field" or "Wow, I kinda hate engineering" which is better to know sooner rather than later.
posted by drlith at 6:29 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Stuff I did as a very nerdy 13-year old (well, 11 to 15):

- built webpages from scratch, learning HTML and eventually some CSS
- did really silly photomanipulations in an illegal version of photoshop (look at Worth1000)
- had a teacher who marked based on number of words on a powerpoint. More than one full sentence meant you probably failed (I did a few years in a private school where tech was important)
- programmed really silly stuff in BASIC and Visual Basic, like tic tac toe and pong
- using photoshop and some tutorials on the internet, learned how to paint in lightsabers into a silly class film
- only communicated to my friends via messenger in full sentences - mad typing skills now.
- was responsible for setting up the wireless network in our house

This was all self-motivated stuff, for the most part. I took some computer classes in high school, but most of this was because I would be sort of isolated in the country, and my only real friend was 3 hours away, and we would watch Star Trek together while doing this stuff.

But overall, my tech literacy is VERY high. I swim through photoshop intuitively when I need to do some scientific image work. (I'm a scanning electron microscope technician). I can tech support a variety of situations, including with my $1.2 million machine. I can set up my boss's email on their phone. If I need to program a little support program, or interact at a professional level with someone doing it for me, I can. I can build a pretty shoddy website if I need to - the formatting for a lot of that has changed quite a bit in 10 years.

My friend from high school I did this all with? She's a digital illustrator whose medium is photoshop, and she does web design on the side. We both can speak the same language in terms of our tech literacy, even if we do totally different things.
posted by aggyface at 5:10 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's what I'd recommend:

1. Typing

2. Microsoft Office-Word, Excel, PowerPoint (this will get you that part-time gig that keeps you from starving in college, and will serve you well throughout your career.)

3. Programming

4. Anything that teaches good critical thinking skills, math, English and debate/speech are excellent for this.

Tech is fast moving and requires constant learning. This is a feature, not a bug. Those of us who started out with two tin cans and string, and are still up-to-date on the latest and greatest are those folks who have learned to learn, and who stay regularly engaged in the industry.

I was a telecom whiz for 25 years, I've been away for 5 now, and frankly, I'd need a whole training course before considering getting back into it. In that time, I've learned a CRM and I'm now an Excel whiz.

Basically foundational high school classes, and the old 'secretarial/business track' that they had in high school, before they decided the whole world should go to college.

I'm serious as death eating crackers.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:09 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

If they focus too much on technical skills they will limit their children as people. Literature, social sciences, art, music are all essential for well-rounded people who can participate fully in society. Nobody should compel 13 yr olds to choose what they want to be when they grow up.
posted by mareli at 6:31 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, two words: Digital Humanities. Show those kids YouTube videos of beautifulsoup python tutorials and make a competitive web scraping exercise out of it.

Show those kids how to use and buy some chocolate for the kid that makes the best demo.

Get some inspiration from your local makerfaire. Hell, make a field trip out of it.

There's so much cool stuff out there, and kids can be very creative if you give them the right framework and support (as can adults!). Find some way to harness their energy that seems appropriate for their interests and capabilities. And don't be afraid to let them teach you a thing or two either.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:41 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Successful employment? Get a STEM degree from an Ivy league (or equivalent caliber) university. Make sure they take plenty of liberal arts classes as well. The networking opportunities alone will carry you through life, and many obscure doors open.

Otherwise, I'd say master the basics- it they have a solid understanding of Math (basic logic, and idea of what calculus is) and understand how to write well and read efficiently they'll be further ahead than many people. Basic social stuff- understanding that everyone has their own adgenda story and how to leverage that (although harder to teach). Some level of athletisim/sports/drama/band or other team activity helps as well (this fits in the learning to work with others to achieve a goal bucket- because guess what, 90% of careers involve learning to work in groups with others...)

Programming is useful, but it can be extraordinarily boring/not interesting if taught poorly and one has no real desire to create things within a computer based environment (and I say that as someone who forced herself through 2 years of advanced programming classes in college (both practical and theory), knew several languages at one point and it utterly bored me to tears). I wish I had taken only one class- the introductory one- it showed me what was out there and what you needed to do the work. I knew then that I wasn't super interested in programming as an eventual career path, but everyone kept saying how CRITICAL programming was so I stuck it out.
posted by larthegreat at 10:30 AM on May 1, 2014

I think the MOST important thing I taught myself when I was a teenager was...

Don't be afraid. Be cautious, but don't be afraid of the unknown. Dabble. Experiment. In the hyper-vigilant world we live in, so many people I know have forgotten that. Why do I have to set up my boss's phone? Because he's afraid he'll do it wrong. "Tech" is not some mystery - there is a rhyme and reason to it. Why are we saying "Learn programming" and "learn photoshop"? Not because the practical skill is for sure going to be useful - it might be, but I don't program at all in my job - but because it demystifies technology. Since I dabbled so much when I was a kid, when I come across a problem I don't try and have other people solve it - I have a variety of resources at my disposal to do it myself whether it be with Excel, pen and paper, programming a little program for myself, photoshop, a hammer and nail....whatever.

Kids these days (myself included, I'm only 26!) have an intuitive grasp of technology if they've been exposed to it. Don't believe me? Give a 2 year old an iPhone and show them how to get a game to play. This kid had no problem browsing a totally different phone for the camera, took a few selfies, then looked for his game. Couldn't find the icon and started crying. I have an android - his mother an iPhone. Didn't matter to the kid, and he can't even really talk yet.

I frankly worry for the ones who aren't exposed to touch screens and safe (not paranoid, but cautious!) browsing protocols. I have a friend who taught a section of Grade 8s about Internet Literacy, and it was terrifying how little they knew for people who use it without even thinking. Just like with anything else, common sense is the biggest thing, and its something that is *hard* for 'adults' to teach since THEY often don't know the common sense in respect to technology.

Technological literacy is the most important thing. Whether they become electricians, plumbers, professors, or accountants - they need to be able to 'read' how devices work and how to use them at their job effectively, and problem solving skills related to them. They don't have to be the engineers of tomorrow; everyone (at least, everyone at the middle-class level and above) will need a deft hand at computers to be competitive in the job market.
posted by aggyface at 12:33 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for your experience and perspective. Since there are still so many thoughtful suggestions coming in, I am not going to "mark as resolved" just yet.
posted by ranebo at 1:32 PM on May 1, 2014

I would say, study data analysis, statistics, databases, business, and how investing works. This stuff is used at the top of every industry. Do some kind of project they can show off. And if school isn't providing real value over the entire day, like if there's only an hour or two of real learning going on out of an 8 or 10 hour day, then test out and go to college early, where they can pick classes that are interesting and challenging.
posted by the big lizard at 9:48 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

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