How to prepare your kids for jobs that don't exist yet

The founder of littleBits on turning kids into creators

Ayah Bdeir Headshot

Ayah Bdeir

Ayah Bdeir created littleBits—sets of electronic building blocks that snap together to form a variety of circuits—with engineering and design professionals in mind. But when she brought her invention to Maker Faire in 2009, it grabbed the attention of children—and their parents and teachers. Today, the company has sold millions of bits, and has a separate team just to write littleBits-based curricula now used in 3,500 schools worldwide. “Many kids are tech-savvy when it comes to using devices,” Bdeir says, “but they don’t necessarily think of themselves as creators.” She predicts that creative confidence, “confidence that you can be a creator and not just a consumer,” will be key to compete in the job market of the future—and to tackle technology jobs that don’t even exist yet.Brian Klutch

When I was growing up, as far as I knew, there wasn’t data mining or user-experience design or front-end engineering—and now they’re some of the most coveted careers in the world. Today, we can’t just prepare students for certain types of careers—we have to enable them to adapt to whatever new careers emerge.

As a society, we accept that everything around us changes quickly and responds to advances in technology. Yet education is such a different thing. Teachers are already very busy—to expect them to guess at what future careers could be is difficult. So we make lesson plans to teach these adaptive skills using a principle that we developed called “invention-based learning.” It’s about giving the kids inventions that are relevant to them as prompts, and then they start inventing to learn the underlying principles. For example, we have students create a catapult, working with a partner and competing against another two-person team, to knock over a pyramid of cups. So you’re learning collaboration, you’re learning how to try and then learn from your trial and try again—and you’re also learning the scientific principles underneath: mechanics and robotics, and physics and trajectories. We don’t just want to make STEM exciting for students; we want to make it more accessible to people of different countries, different languages, and different genders.

We can’t just prepare students for certain types of careers—we have to enable them to adapt to whatever new careers emerge.

In the past we organized ourselves by nations and countries. I think technology is allowing us to organize by interest, by passion, by expertise. We have 300 chapters—a library, school, or stay-at-home mom can sign up to be a chapter and start running events and workshops—around the world. We see people collaborating between South Africa and Pakistan and New York and Dubai; teachers are sharing lesson plans and best practices.

Our students and kids have ideas that we’ve never thought of, so we have to empower them very early on to feel that they are change makers. We did a challenge, called “Invent for Good,” and we saw students invent things that are heart-warming but also extremely clever: a wearable echolocation device inspired by bats so blind people can move around obstacles, a device that helps you brush your teeth more thoroughly, enhancements to wheelchairs. You have them thinking about things in a different way, and creating new inventions that might help the future because they’re more exposed to technology.

Bdeir isn't the only one creating new tools for learning. These startups also aim to disrupt STEM education.

  • The MEL Science chemistry set uses virtual reality to help students visualize reactions.

  • Once a month, Blue Moon Box ships the materials for a science project to subscribers.

  • Makey Makey kits let kids turn everyday objects into computer controllers or musical instruments.

  • Kids can program robots like mBot and Innovati Bipedinno to move around the room.

  • Kits such as VEX and Engino let students build whatever type of robot they imagine, then learn programming in order to control their creations.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of Popular Science.