Encouraging kids to become engineers with office supplies

I commented on an article entitled “What Were Your Childhood Inspirations” on the Engineer Blogs site today with the following observations that 1) point out my age, and 2) emphasize my nerdiness:

I’m not exactly sure whether my parents pushed me into engineering or whether they merely encouraged my interests, but I always had science toys around growing up. So, I had Erector sets, blocks, Tinker Toys, and chemistry sets (back when chemistry sets actually contained chemicals!).

The survey list was undoubtedly created by someone much younger than me, since it left out several staples of my youth: Heathkits; model cars, planes, and ships; and “Things of Science”. Of course, some are no longer even available, and others are sadly out of favor with kids today.

A manila folder.  Duh.

Oh, the possibilities ...

But by far my coolest “toy” was … manila folders. My dad picked them out of the trash at work brought stacks and stacks of these home for me. I then colored, cut, and glued these into spaceships, ships, and Star Trek phaser and communicator models (among other things). The kids of things I could build was practically unlimited (although objects curved in two dimensions were impossible). Based on this experience, I should have been something other than an electrical engineer (mechanical? civil? architect?), but the experience taught me much that I’ve used since: the value of having a plan before you start out, there are limitations to what is physically possible, and things can be use for tasks other than for what they’re designed, for example.

Of course, this hobby has been a source of endless mirth for my children, who have gently mocked me for years about building paper spaceships instead of having a social life (something which, of course, was not entirely true). I reply by reminding them that it helped me learn skills that put food on the table, a roof over their head, and send them to college.

It’s been a long time since I turned a manila folder into a model of the Star Trek shuttle craft, but I still can’t pick one up without thinking, “Hmm … I could make a model of an X-wing fighter out of this …”

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