Radio Shack, STEM and Closed Doors

High Technology, Innovation, Opinions Posted Apr 1, 2015 by chenpr

There used to be a Radio Shack a few doors down from CHEN PR World Headquarters. It’s among the many that have been shuttered since the venerable tech brand’s collapse.

The closing at 95 Summer Street came and went without much fanfare, but the demise of the Radio Shack brand has caused me to consider a possibly pivotal moment in my life. That moment may serve as a cautionary tale in an age when there’s so much emphasis on what American should do about STEM education and closing the technology skills gap.

shackBear with me on the connection.

More years ago than I care to admit, when I was an awkward boy adjusting to his adolescence and life in the chalkboard jungle of Quabbin Regional Junior/Senior High School, I was introduced to the TRS-80—Radio Shack’s iconic desktop computer. A revelation in its day, I was probably first drawn to the monitor, which looked to me like a fancy television set. (Television has always filled me with wonder.)

My curiosity piqued, I explored the machine to try and understand what it did and how it worked. It didn’t take long before I discovered some games that were logic-based, if/then type exercises. Rudimentary by today’s standards, but novel enough to hold my attention, after playing around for a short while I decided to see if I could create my own versions. Over the course of a few weeks I worked at replicating and modifying the code I found behind the programs, ran my new versions, trouble-shot and shared the results with some friends. It was fun. It was fascinating. I enjoyed it.

Quabbin.inddThen along came peer pressure.

QRHS’s stock of TRS-80s fell under the aegis of the Audio-Visual Club. The AV Club was responsible for making sure that slide and film projectors, tape players, television sets and video tape decks were in the right rooms at the right time and in correct working order. If something wasn’t operating properly, a member of the AV Club would be dispatched to fix the problem or replace the broken machine.

AV Club is where the nerd stereotype was born. In 1978 if you were a kid who wanted to fit in, you did not want to be a member of the AV Club.

I wanted to fit in.

From the point of that revelation on I focused my efforts on winning “Class Clown” plaudits from my contemporaries and earning middling grades from my teachers. I succeeded at both endeavors.

Today, as Radio Shack doors close around the country, I wonder what doors I might have closed on myself because I valued acceptance. Was my experience common? Is it still common and, if so, how many kids today still eschew an interest in STEM for the same reasons I did?

While high technology is more integral to everyday life than it was in the Disco Era, it feels to me like the saturation of popular culture has grown to the point where conformity is even more important than it was when I was seeking a comfortable identity.

trs80There are far more successful high tech role models today than there were when I was in my formative years. Boys and girls alike can look to technology luminaries such as Elon Musk and Marissa Mayer and aspire to follow similar paths. Yet, with some exceptions, the entertainment industry persists in portraying the technically adroit as socially awkward outcasts. And while it may be fun to watch nerds on television, no one really wants to be socially awkward outcast.

Which raises a question that I’ve contemplated before when helping to compose such essays on behalf of others… is the biggest problem we have in closing the skills gap that our system of education is ill-equipped to imbue young students with proficiency in the STEM disciplines, or is it that they are bombarded with the subtle yet persistent message that having such skills is socially undesirable?

I’ll never know where my curiosity with the TRS-80 might have led if I had been more confident in myself and worried less about whether or not I would get teased, but I do know that I succumbed to my fears. If my experience is relevant, perhaps the best thing we can do to start more kids down the road to a strong STEM education is to stop erecting barriers in the first place.