Builders, coders, tinkerers and dreamers. Today’s youth are learning the ropes in a whole new way.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Mark Staff
Think back to the jobs you were trained for during your formative years. How many of those jobs simply don’t exist anymore? How many switchboard operators and file clerks have seen their jobs vanish over the last few decades, as surely as the light bulb put lamplighters out of business?
The fact is, the job market is in a state of constant flux, spurred on technological achievements every day. Today, however, it’s experiencing a radical shift as automation creates entirely new fields even as it guides former professions into the history books. Ask any journalist or travel agent and they’ll tell you all about how the internet forced their respective industry into a place where they had to adapt or perish.
Our educators are doing the same. They’re not just training our youth for the best jobs right now, they’re training them to chase whatever careers may some day emerge.
Our educators aren’t just training children to code, they’re showing them how a code works, and more importantly why it works. They’re also showing our children that learning the skilled trades, those careers that require a human’s intuition and creativity, are some of the best ways to get ahead in the future. Whatever that future may look like.
Meet three area students being trained in the many tools and techniques they’ll use to build the future.
In a classroom tucked away in the labyrinthine halls of Hilton Head Elementary, Hannah Weitekamper stands amid a flurry of activity.
At her feet, swirling and careening in a chaotic swirl around the tile floor of the room, dozens of robots have turned the class into a scene right out of “Star Wars.” These are Dot and Dash robots, and behind their every movement is a meticulously planned program written by students just like Hannah.
Likening the programming of these robots to playing a xylophone, she describes in marvelously simple terms a complex series of instructions that would surely baffle those of us who grew up in a time where programming robots generally wasn’t on the curriculum: “If you code it to do something, it will do it.”
Among the students in her computer class, Hannah has shown a remarkable ability to not only code, but to teach others as well. And if you imply that she’s one of the best coders in class, she’ll shrug it off with effortless humility. “I don’t think of myself that way. I think others can do better as they go on, and I think that they just have it in themselves.”
Coding seems to be just another skill set to conquer for this multi-faceted fourth grader, who is already a first-degree black belt in Taekwondo (“You want to know a secret? I sometimes make boys cry,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper), avid swimmer and accomplished tennis and soccer player.
In fact, among her studies coding wasn’t even her first passion.
“I was into other kinds of things like reading and social studies,” she said. “I had to get used to it, so it was the third year I got into it. It took a while to get into it.”
And now this budding programmer has not only learned coding to the point she’s helping lead her class in writing programs and sending robots whizzing around the room, she’s looking to take things a step further in the future.
“I want to go to Clemson for engineering, and just do coding for fun.”
While he spends his time at school immersed in his studies, it’s when he gets home that fourth grader Jacob Torres’ true education begins.
“My favorite part of going home is my dad. He teaches me a lot above my grade level,” Jacob said. “Right now, he’s teaching me about physics. He opened my mind to a new perspective. Technically, time travel is already possible. We can’t go backward in time, but we can go forward.”
It’s heady stuff for a kid his age, but Jacob’s inquisitive young mind seems to take it all in stride. Now in his second year learning the ins and outs of computer coding, he’s already shown a tremendous level of skill in writing looping codes and debugging – that is to say, figuring out why a code isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do.
“It’s really helping me learn more about computers and technology, and how to code better so I get a good education and job,” he said.
For Jacob, coding not only gave him an outlet for his creativity, it also lets this avid gamer see the work that goes into creating games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. “You have to think about what you want the player to do. The screen just sucks you in.”
Of course, a kid who goes home and learns the intricacies of physics and special relativity isn’t going to just limit his interest to 1s and 0s. Born in Florida to a family from a wealth of different backgrounds, he’s become interested in tracing his lineage and the flags that represent each country. “My ancestors came from Colombia and Great Britain, so I really like to study their flags, as well as Australia and Germany.”
This well-rounded approach to his education presents itself in what Jacob does with his coding skills, as well. Namely, art. “The most incredible thing I ever did in coding was paint a dragon,” he said.
And now, with the many skills this young coder brings to bear, he’s looking to eventually make his way to Georgia Tech to continue creating the code that will write the future.
Beau Bischoff does not like doing things the easy way.
Which is good, because when you’re attempting to cut nearly 60 pieces of quarter-inch thick sheet metal into a three-dimensional self-portrait, there really are no easy ways. There are just ways that present varying degrees of difficulty.
Drawn into metalworking two years ago, this May River High School junior quickly demonstrated an aptitude for not just the technical applications of welding, but the artistic applications as well. His skills caught the attention of his teacher, Brad Childress.
“I had no clue two years ago I wanted to get into welding. It was a brand-new school, and they had welding as an option, so I selected it because I thought it would be fun,” he said. “Then last year Mr. Childress started talking about Skills USA.”
Skills USA is a national competition of technical prowess in fields ranging from metalworking to cosmetology. Beau entered last year confident in the entry he’d created, a Tim Burton-esque bust of a creature with one eye sewn shut and an open mouth full of intricately wrought teeth. Each piece of which, it’s worth noting, was created from scratch.
“The sculpture really stood out. I’ve always been interested in art; I’ve always had an eye for detail,” he said. Indeed, looking at photos on the cracked screen of his iPhone, the sculpture is incredibly advanced for someone so young. Despite the buzz surrounding it at Skills USA, Beau’s creation didn’t even place.
That just made him want to work harder.
His latest creation for this year will be a self-portrait, beginning with a small 3D model cast in red plastic. The long process from start to finish originated with a full scan of his head using an Xbox Kinect. From there, files of the scan will be used to cut ¼ inch slabs of metal into sections of the finished piece, to be cut on a plasma table. From there, the sections will be stacked and welded together, then ground around the edges to create what one assumes will be a very heavy work of art.
It’s a varied set of skills that Bischoff hopes to one day utilize as an architect. Currently taking engineer and welding courses at MRHS, he hopes to attend Clemson as he pursues architecture as a career (with a side business in, naturally, metal work).
“CATE (Career and Technology Education) classes are incredible,” he said. “For people who don’t want to work in an office for the rest of their life and actually want to build something, this is a great life. A lot of CATE students look forward to school because they get to go into the shop and make things.”