Scary clocks or bombs, let kids innovate

I will admit that at fourteen years of age, I never invented anything newsworthy like young American Ahmed Mohamed did earlier this week when he got himself arrested after showing up at his school in Texas with a clock he made that teachers mistook for a bomb.

I will admit that at fourteen years of age, I never invented anything newsworthy like young American Ahmed Mohamed did earlier this week when he got himself arrested after showing up at his school in Texas with a clock he made that teachers mistook for a bomb.

The arrest immediately started trending on Twitter and soon generated international news headlines after it took a new controversial twist linking the boy’s detention to his Muslim background.

Discussing the merits of Ahmed’s arrest is not the point of today’s commentary but I will say something brief about it; let’s face it, there’s a global terror alert and the teachers were right to be suspicious of the boy’s weird looking clock.

From the pictures I saw of the kid’s invention, on the internet, the thing looked rather creepy and I can imagine that when it started beeping loudly in class, the teachers must have genuinely believed it was a bomb and the name of the boy who had it may not have helped matters.

The arrest was probably unnecessary but the precaution that teachers took was absolutely crucial to safeguard everyone else’s safety just in case it turned out that the device was indeed a bomb; I am sure, the conversation would be different now.

Fortunately, the boy’s ordeal has turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it got him fans from some of the highest places in his country including President Barrack Obama and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg both of whom cheered and invited him to their respective offices.

At 14, I was in senior two, shortly before my first expulsion for being a controversial student; I was an information prefect then but also a self-appointed attorney for students who got themselves in trouble with school rules.

I noticed many twitter users in Africa joining the global bandwagon to stand by Ahmed a move that I thought was purely fueled by emotions of people who felt the boy was being persecuted for his Islamic faith.

Granted, but I also thought a more important thing for us in Africa should have been to reflect and ask what our own fourteen year kids are creating at school; if you’re reading this, flashback to when you were 14, what did you create then?

If you created nothing don’t worry, you have company. Most likely, it wasn’t our fault.

That not many fourteen-year old kids in Africa are inventing clocks or bombs…whatever, should be a cause for concern, a condemnation of the nature of our educational system.

Africans on twitter and Facebook says something about us; that we are adapters not creators. Many compete based on how well they can use new applications but not whether they can create a competing platform.

In China, you can’t access twitter or Facebook, not even YouTube, and this has inspired some Chinese innovators to create substitutes. So when in China, one uses Sina-Weibo for twitter related services and WeChat for Facebook and WhatsApp services with Youku for YouTube.

With over 600 million mobile internet users in China, the founders of Sina-Weibo, Wechat and Youku are some of the wealthiest people in the world.

On top of admiring little Ahmed, we should also feel challenged that the innovation capacity of a 14-year old American in high school kid can’t be matched by the capacities of most university science students in Africa.

Yet I believe we have thousands of talented youngsters in Africa that can make global headlines with mindboggling inventions. For instance, if your car mechanic is so talented at fixing your Mercedes whenever it has issues, then he surely could assemble one.So who’s to blame for Africa’s untapped invention potential? I will blame our overly strict societies that don’t give kids the freedom to break rules, to be curious and push beyond limits just to experiment.

Whenever a kid is sent to study abroad, the only competitive edge they acquire over their counterparts that stayed back is a changed attitude and mindset where they are not afraid to bend rules, be curious and play on the edge just to innovate.

I like technical vocational institutes even though I never went to one; unlike normal schools and colleges, technical colleges allow their students to dismantle things and mend them again, that’s the only way to learn.

For instance, kids should not be punished for saying one plus one is equal to one, instead, they should be given a chance to explain why they think so; that way, they learn more than being told that the right answer is two.

I would be thrilled to hear that a kid in a Rwandan school has engineered a bomb as long the intention is not to hurt others.

 

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