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Education IT

How Do I Talk To 4th Graders About IT? 531

Tsunayoshi writes "My son volunteered me to give a presentation on what I do for a living for career day at his elementary school. I need to come up with a roughly 20-minute presentation to be given to 4-5 different classrooms. I am a systems administrator, primarily Unix/Linux and enterprise NAS/SAN storage, working for an aerospace company. I was thinking something along the lines of explaining how some everyday things they experience (websites, telephone systems, etc.) all depend on servers, and those servers are maintained by systems administrators. I was also going to talk about what I do specifically, which is maintain the computer systems that allow the really smart rocket scientists to get things into space. Am I on the right track? Can anyone suggest some good (and cheap/easy to make) visual aids?"
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How Do I Talk To 4th Graders About IT?

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:54AM (#25245209) Journal
    I am code monkey so I have no right to make fun of your job but let's look at it from the eyes of your audience:

    I am a systems administrator,


    primarily Unix/Linux


    and enterprise NAS/SAN storage,


    working for an aerospace company.


    There's a lot of angles you could approach your job from but if I can give you any advice, keep it entertaining. I volunteer to teach grade school kids occasionally and what we do is an engineering challenge for each class. We do many different challenges but an example is handing out limited supplies to each team and having them build paper planes. Sometimes we throw in random stuff like paper clips or rubber bands to see what the kids try to do with them. While they work, we talk about engineering in general. At the beginning we'll give them specific requirements in a childish Statement of Work style which lay out how we are selecting the best airplane or bridge or tower or whatever.

    At the end of the session we start to ramp up the specifics as we do the final tests on the stuff they made and hand out candy. I'll start to talk about structural integrity, how we use math to make things better, etc. As I get more technical, I'll start to lose kids but there are usually a few that get excited and that's why I'm there.

    If you go there set on talking about just IT, you're going to lose them and--worse--possibly turn them off to technical jobs like that. Stick to the end product of what you actually provide. Try to think of fun facts to keep them entertained--don't say petabyte, figure out how many times around the world one string of text will go that a petabyte can store. Then tell them how many of those you are in charge of. I also suggest you start out generic--ask the kids what an engineer does and then get more specific with your job and place.

    Also, my company always has junk left over from bring your child to work day, hand that stuff out like prizes or give one to each student if you have enough.

  • Flowcharts (Score:5, Funny)

    by Merls the Sneaky ( 1031058 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:56AM (#25245219)

    Flowcharts, and keep it simple. Visual aids really help.

  • by Lendrick ( 314723 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:56AM (#25245221) Homepage Journal

    "Talk to your kids about IT ... before someone else does."

  • by pieterh ( 196118 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:57AM (#25245239) Homepage

    Explain that software is like a city... pipes, houses, roads, bridges. Explain that there are people who design the stuff, make it, repair it, and use it. Explain that this is the world they will live in, and give examples they can relate to: the phone network, the Internet.

    Give them the understanding that IT is about stacks, layers, stuff that is old and deep, stuff that is fresh and useless...

    Don't use technical words, don't try to teach anything specific at all, and don't try to sell Linux or open source (kids tend to respond to sales pitches cynically and negatively).

    My advice above all is to explain how it's about people, doing things, making things, working together.

  • simple (Score:4, Funny)

    by Errtu76 ( 776778 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:57AM (#25245241) Journal

    "It's all about cookies. Who wants a cookie??"

  • by A beautiful mind ( 821714 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:58AM (#25245253)
    Start with the basics and work your way up from there.

    I'd suggest axiomatic set theory first coupled with computing history, linear algebra and analysis. Throw in some logic into the mix for good measure. Once they got the basics point them towards the linux kernel and start discussing the more interesting issues of SMP, scheduling, latency and memory management.
  • Old gear? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Max Romantschuk ( 132276 ) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:59AM (#25245275) Homepage

    One cheap visual aid would be an old computer and or server, so you can show them what it looks like inside a computer. My kids tend to like watching me swapping components, at least.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Taibhsear ( 1286214 )

      One cheap visual aid would be an old computer and or server, so you can show them what it looks like inside a computer. My kids tend to like watching me swapping components, at least.

      So does my cat. Hopefully your children won't try to be as paws-on as the cat is. Like moths to a flame...

  • Easy... (Score:5, Funny)

    by jav1231 ( 539129 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @09:59AM (#25245285)
    "See the Internet is a series of tubes! And you have to understand that those tubes can get clogged up!"
  • Show your scars? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by melikamp ( 631205 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:00AM (#25245289) Homepage Journal

    System administrator, eh? You can start by showing your scars.

  • by Manip ( 656104 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:00AM (#25245291)

    As one of the 21st centuries greatest thinkers said:
    "And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material" - Ted Stevens

  • You see, kids... the internet is like a series of pipes, and I, as a system administrator, am the plumber of the digital age, making sure all the crap flows freely in and out of your homes and offices.

  • by Capt James McCarthy ( 860294 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:01AM (#25245311) Journal

    Put it in nonsensical pop music format. And keep it shorter then 3 minutes.

  • Go Hands-on (Score:5, Interesting)

    by prgrmr ( 568806 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:02AM (#25245339) Journal
    Get a dead hard disk drive, take the cover off so the platters and read/write head are visible. Pass it around the class while you talk. Computers and IT will become immediately more real to them once they can touch it and see that a computer isn't just a fancy TV with keyboard and mouse.

    If you want to add an analogy they can relate to, also bring a long a stack of encylopedias or an OED and do the "the words in X many of these books will fit on that disk" comparison.
  • by DeadSea ( 69598 ) * on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:03AM (#25245341) Homepage Journal

    I always get jealous of IT folks when I see that they get to work with racks of equipment. It seems to me like it is building with Lego blocks for a living.

    In addition to software installation and security, our IT folks plan out the hardware with the power and cooling requirements. I would have been fascinated by this stuff as a kid (and I still am).

  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:04AM (#25245355) Homepage Journal
    If your manager can understand it, a 4th grader should have no problem understanding what you do!
  • Sysadmin = roadie (Score:5, Interesting)

    by David Gerard ( 12369 ) <{slashdot} {at} {davidgerard.co.uk}> on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:04AM (#25245365) Homepage

    You're an aerospace sysadmin. So you're a roadie for rocket scientists.

    Rocket Science = EXCITING!

    So talk about how what you do holds up the exciting stuff.

  • by Kludge ( 13653 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:06AM (#25245401)

    Explain how online video games work from a networking and storage point of view.
    You don't do video games? Doesn't matter.

  • by Yogger ( 24866 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:06AM (#25245407) Homepage

    As much as I hate to say it, MS actually got one right. They ran a webcomic (Heroes Happen Here) for a while, most of it wasn't too great. The 1st page is a kid asking his dad what he does for a living so he can give a school presentation about it. The dad goes on about what he does as a developer and it goes way over the kids head. So the kid tells everyone his dad drives an ice cream truck.

    http://blogs.technet.com/hhh_comic/archive/2008/01/29/hhh-comic-releases-day-1-comic.aspx [technet.com]

  • by rodney dill ( 631059 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:14AM (#25245533) Journal
    ... let me know how, so I can explain it to my parents.
  • by Taibhsear ( 1286214 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:14AM (#25245541)

    Don't underestimate kids. They may be immature and annoying but they aren't stupid (naive and ignorant maybe but not stupid). Give them the tools and they will learn. I had my first computers (commodore 64 and a vic 20) at around 6 years old. I learned dos by 10 and had fixed dozens of electronic, computer, and mechanical devices around the house with no help from anyone (not even books). I'd be willing to bet that this anecdotal evidence is a mere drop in the pond compared to others on slashdot. I consider myself intelligent but I've seen tons of kids that blow me out of the water. The trick is just to find the right spark to get their curiosity going. (and each kid differs a lot in that realm)

  • by Todd Fisher ( 680265 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:16AM (#25245583) Homepage
    First step is to let your child know, in no uncertain terms, that volunteering you for anything in the future will result in two months grounding.
  • by jeremyp ( 130771 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:17AM (#25245585) Homepage Journal

    You're a Unix sysadmin who reads Slashdot.

    You don't expect us to believe that you have enough social skills to get to the point of having had children do you?

  • the tom hanks/ bill paxton/ kevin bacon movie with the famous "houston, we have a problem" line

    freeze frame when they cut back to ed harris and ground crew strategizing, point to some guy in the background fiddling with some equipment, and say "that's me"

  • by edremy ( 36408 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:23AM (#25245675) Journal
    I am a systems administrator, primarily Unix/Linux and enterprise NAS/SAN storage, working for an aerospace company

    Translation: "I am a garbageman. I spend most of my time with a lot of expensive and neat looking hardware cleaning up the messes of people who think they are better than me. You know the neighbor across the street who tosses a bunch of leaky, smelly trash bags on the ground every week and doesn't bother using a can? That's Bob, the engineer over in building 4 who manages to run processes that ABEND every single time because he's an idiot, but he blames the network anyway. The guy down the street who always piles up dead branches and lawn clippings until it stops anyone from walking on the sidewalk? Meet Sue in building 3, who seems to find a way to generate 900GB of crap data that then crashes the network file share. Or perhaps the family down the street with the can so smelly nobody will get near it? That's Ralph, who corrupts his files on the network store at least once a month and needs a total restore from tape.

    The only really big difference is that a garbageman has more job security and is probably paid better. Stick with that or plumbing- you'll go far since people will pay anything not to have to deal with it."

  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportlandNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:29AM (#25245747) Homepage Journal

    is to make your kids friends think your son has a cool dad.

    System admin work is BOOooring to 4th graders.
    Keep it a little more general, keep 'data' reasonably abstract.

    Talking about computers to 4th graders is now like talking to 4th graders about the phone system. We all have phones, we all know how to use them, we all have the nifty features. It just works. Hard to make the interesting.

    Give some examples of things going wrong and how you saved the day. Explain how rockets wouldn't be able to go without you. Kids love rockets.

    Explain how rockets would explode without you. Make yourself a hero and make is sound like you are 'da man'.

    I have a 3rd and a 5th grader, and I expect my time to give a presentation to the class is coming. As a programmer I am going to need to keep it lively. I will probably do some quick Lego robotic programming so they can see the reward for my work immediatly. I'll give the class a couple of decisions on what I will do.

    Good luck.

  • Fourth graders (Score:3, Informative)

    by gryf ( 121168 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:29AM (#25245763) Homepage
    Presenting to fourth graders is like presenting to upper mgt, except they have less authority.
    Use lots of flashy colors, slides with sounds and visual effects, and you can make anything look important if you have spongebob squarepants say it in your slide.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nyctopterus ( 717502 )
      This is rubbish. You do have to be interesting, but don't expect that fourth graders are stupid and all they want is flashy bullshit.
  • by LibertineR ( 591918 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:30AM (#25245771)
    Here is what you need: 2 networked laptops, one acting as a web server, the other as a photoshopping client.

    1 digital camera, and connecting USB cables.

    What you want to do, is involve the kids in the building of a quick web site, while talking about the technologies that make it all work. The network connectivity, the HTML that places THEIR pictures on the page, even talk about the various cables necessary to connect the computers, the camera to the computer, and explain what happens when they press ENTER. Literally trace the content down the wire.

    Prepare a template ahead of time, take pictures of the kids, use some cool filters in Photoshop, and then add them to the web page. In the end, the kids get jazzed over seeing their picture on a web page, and will enjoy your explaining how it worked, from the camera to the page.

    Dont be a dufus and go on about the wonders of DHCP, and all that. Its got to be applicable to what they care about.

    Anyway, that worked for me, and I got a dozen calls from parents asking me for follow-on advice, as their kids demanded tools to build their own sites.

    If you remember the principle of demonstrating how IT effects their lives, you will have a captive audience. I guarantee that if you get into IT from a nuts and bolts perspective, rather than applying IT to what kids care about, you will get snores.

  • Tactile Objects (Score:3, Insightful)

    by INeededALogin ( 771371 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:35AM (#25245879) Journal
    If you are looking for something fun... take in some old junk.

    How about an older CPU and some memory. You would even bring a mouse and ask the class if anyone knows what it is. Someone will of course. ADD needs things to keep them interested. I would even take some pictures of a datacenter and explain that their are entire buildings full of nothing but computers.

    Don't underestimate 4th graders. They use computers, they play games, and actually quite intelligent.
  • Fire them (Score:5, Funny)

    by dccase ( 56453 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:38AM (#25245929)

    Tell them that they're no longer needed, and give your lecture to some kids in a less-expensive country.

    For added realism, have them train their replacements.

  • by vmxeo ( 173325 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:41AM (#25245997) Homepage Journal
    I'd suggest you start here [homestarrunner.com]. The explaination of differences between a hard drive and a floppy is especially effective. Modify as needed for your own audience. Use of a lucca libre mask is optional, but recommended if you want to hold the respect of a class of 4th graders.
  • by EWAdams ( 953502 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:44AM (#25246063) Homepage

    Your child has condemned himself to the humiliation of having everyone know his father is a big nerd. Well, it's his own fault for volunteering you. Unfortunately, his respect for you will now plummet and you will have trouble keeping him off drugs three years from now. After several minor run-ins with the law, he will end up studying general accounting at community college, and take a job cooking the books for a corrupt tire warehouse in Des Moines. His wife will commit suicide at 32. Your grandchildren will be spoiled and ugly.

    You can, however, prevent all this by claiming to be an astronaut.

  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:45AM (#25246091) Homepage

    Bring stuff you can pass around. As much stuff as possible. Short network cables. A small hub. Some system upgrade CDs (ones that are old enough that you don't mind fingerprints on them. A ring binder. Snapshots of server rooms, wiring closets, etc. A punchdown block and a punchdown tools. You know, stuff.

  • by LeninZhiv ( 464864 ) * on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:49AM (#25246161)

    Start with a basic discussion of SysV vs. BSD, then move on to shells and explain why the Bourne shell his historically prefered to csh for scripts.

    You might demonstrate a little sed and awk, but keep in mind that these are just kids, so you might just jump ahead to perl. Maybe wrap it up by talking about NFS and how network filesystems have changed since Samba came along.

    Oh, and if you feel like you're losing them along the way, you can probably win them back with an Itanic joke :-)

  • props (Score:4, Funny)

    by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:58AM (#25246301)
    You'll need to do a few things to give the kids a proper flavor for the job.

    First, for no good reason whatsoever, insist that the meeting be held at 3AM, give no warning of this - just page them all at night.

    Second, ensure the classroom is a cold as possible.

    Third, in the background play some extremely loud fan noise.

    Begin the session with recriminations, belittle the children for their lack of psychic abilities.

    Repeat the same information to the children over and over a few times to see if the same phrase magically has a different effect. Berate the children for not doing what you think they should be doing.

    End with demands that this never happen again.
  • easy (Score:3, Funny)

    by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @11:31AM (#25246751)
    just imagine you're explaining what you do to your boss.
  • by TrueJim ( 107565 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @11:34AM (#25246793) Homepage

    (1) When you talk about *what* a systems administrator does, it doesn't sound that hard: installing and configuring software, patching, installing and configuring hardware, researching and comparing potential upgrade options, troubleshooting problems, etc.

    What 4th graders probably don't think about is that none of these things by themselves may seem particularly hard at the scale of an individual computer, but when you multiply each of these activities by a gazillion servers, routers, clients, etc., then it has the potential to become a real nightmare. So you have to use tricks & technologies in a company's computing environment that you'd never bother with at home.

    E.g., "Ever seen your mom or dad install a Windows update? Remember how nuts that made them? Now imagine doing that across 20,000 desktops in 10 cities, and being given only 3 days to get them all done!"

    (2) Probably a lot of your time is spent being a detective, trying to puzzle out why something that oughta be working ain't. Telling stories about some of your successful detective adventures might be entertaining.

    All people (including kids) like to be told stories, so the more you can populate your presentation with interesting anecdotes, the better.

    And, as one person already wrote, bringing some old or broken hard drive, circuit boards, etc. to pass around the classroom probably couldn't hurt either.

    Also, many 4th graders I know think that the *monitor* is the computer. They point at it and say, "That's the computer, isn't it? Why are you fiddling with that other box?" I know that sounds crazy, but that's the way many 9 year olds think. So don't assume any understanding of computers just because they know how to play Spore.

  • Tubes! (Score:3, Funny)

    by flappinbooger ( 574405 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @11:39AM (#25246873) Homepage
    The Internet is a series of Tubes, you see...
  • by MacTO ( 1161105 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @11:49AM (#25246991)

    A lot of people have already displayed this sentiment by proposing demonstrations. But it is important to have something that the children can interact with in a meaningful way.

    A Hopper Nanosecond is one example, where you can show them something, hand it around, and have them hold something meaningful. It may also be relevant to what your work, since the network is just a bunch of wires. An old EPROM with the crystal window, or an old 486 or 68040 with the silicon exposed, is neat too because they can see the insides of a computer chip. Simply popping open a computer or a hard drive is pretty cool too. Particularly the hard drive, if you can have it running, but the open computer is cool too since very few of them would have seen the insides. If you do any programming on the job, maybe show them (and the teacher) Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu) since that is something a 10 year old can play with. It is also very visual.

    This is probably outside of your line of work, but something that really snags their interest is showing them sound and letting them make the sounds that they will see. Squeak will allow you to show them voice prints or a fast fourier transform (they do start talking about frequency at that grade level, as pitch, so it's neat to see the pitch of a boy's, a girl's, a man's, and a woman's voice).

    If you're in a classroom with a reading area (a.k.a. the carpet), asking the teacher to have them sit there (rather than in desks) is handy. It cuts back on the number of distractions, and they seem less likely to drift off. Some will chat though, but I wouldn't worry about that too much if they are chatting about things you pass around.

    But most of all, just try to have fun yourself. Kids that age seem to respond positively if other people think something is fun or interesting. (Alas, the opposite is true too.)

  • Educator Chiming in: (Score:3, Informative)

    by eepok ( 545733 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @12:26PM (#25247503) Homepage

    With risk of sounding reflexive, you have to treat 4th graders like your grand parents when it comes to computers. Sure, the 4th graders have probably spent more time online (laptop, PC/Mac, cell phone) than your grand parents, but they understand the workings just as well... or just as not.

    Now, if you're going to talk to them about IT (not just "Hey, look what a computer can do") you have to first sell to them that they are actually interested about the workings of *anything*. Liken what you do to a doctor working on a patient where instead of dealing with blood, you're dealing with thoughts and communication. In fact, you are the emergency room doctor that's called on when people NEED to communicate but have lost the ability to do so.

    After you relate yourself to something they WILL know, then talk about easy to swallow details. If you're helping rocket scientists get things into space, bring a large stack of dot matrix printer paper full of data and explain to them that it's your job to make sure all that information is squeezed through a tiny cable (this is where you hold up some wire or cat5). That's your blood vessel, that data is the blood, the computer is the heart... and you fight the disease of viruses, bugs, errors, and injury!

    And then you win @ 4th grade. ;)

  • by uigrad_2000 ( 398500 ) on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:08PM (#25250393) Homepage Journal

    Kids love to see the inside of computers. Believe me, it's like you're unveiling the mysteries of the universe to them.

    Bring hardware that you can turn on while disconnected (fans, hard drives, power supplies). Assemble a working system (ie. hook it up to a monitor) without the pieces in any case.

    Then, pull out a rackmount system (obviously something small, probably just a frame), and explain that placing the computer parts in them is like working with legos. I guarantee that this will work.

The world is coming to an end--save your buffers!