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E-Business in the Enterprise – August 30, 2005

The joy of taking stuff apart

By Sean Mc Grath

In a room full of say, 12 year olds, how would you spot budding engineering talent? Perhaps the classic personality trait is endless curiosity about how stuff in the physical world works. This is typically accompanied by a comprehensive repertoire of questions that start with the word 'why'.

As most parents know, a good way to handle curiosity about how things work is to give the budding empiricist things that are made up of lots of pieces. Things that can be taken apart and put back together again. Things that reveal their secrets incrementally as layer after layer of stuff is disassembled and re-assembled.

As a kid, I did my fair share of taking stuff apart. I was singularly less successful at putting things back together again though. Suffice it to say that my early experiences crystallized my understanding of my own limitations in this regard.

Thankfully, the world is well stocked with people who are as adept at putting stuff back together as they are at taking stuff apart. One only has to glance through biographical information about engineering types both past and present to see the evidence. Engineers who grew up building radios in matchboxes; fixing vinyl record players; replacing blown valves in TV sets and so on.

In my mind's eye, I look around the house I grew up in thirty years ago and I see the endless scope for experiment and discovery that it afforded the inquisitive mind. I look around my own house today and what do I see? Well, I see boxes not unlike the boxes of my childhood, housing radios and record (CD) players and TV sets. Unfortunately, taking them apart would be, I suspect, a bit of a disappointment to your average inquisitive 12 year old.

For starters, it might not be possible to get the box casing off at all. These days, gadgets are increasingly manufactured in such a way that tinkering with the insides is made physically very difficult. In cases where the outer box can be removed, the insides are likely to consist of unenlightening printed circuit boards with few (probably zero) moving parts. There is little that an inquisitive kid can do but marvel at how complex behavior comes out of such an inert looking thing as a printed circuit board.

In 50 years time, when today's 12 year olds are writing their biographical sketches of how they got into electronics or mechanics or computing, how will they describe their childhood learning experiences? It seems inescapable that the descriptions will feature fewer and fewer screwdrivers but what will the replacement be?

Software? Presumably so. But what kind? The software that lies at the heart of most gadgets is not readily accessible and so a virtual disassembly analog of the screwdriver based disassembly is not an option.

Now call me an old fuddy-duddy if you will but it seems to me that a rich vein of learning experiences for budding engineers is gradually being closed off with the relentless digitization of, well, everything.

What impact will this have on the education of future crops of engineering talent? We will have to wait and see.