NEW YORK—Crowds of children filled the circle of tents at 14th Street Park on July 31 for the Geek Street Fair, hosted by Google. Some played melodies with electronic gloves lined with metallic strips, others tinkered with robotic LEGO kits, while some played at a booth with video games.
The event was intended to kindle interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). And the message was made clear: as technology use becomes more common, the once-marginalized group of geeks who enjoy video games and computers has suddenly become cool … sort of.
“It used to be that people didn’t like technology that much. They didn’t like having to deal with a computer, and so on. And now people have smartphones in their pockets,” said Craig Nevill-Manning, Google NYC’s founding engineer.
Nevill-Manning wore a Google Glass headset and a white lab coat. He joked that he felt a bit funny, but in the crowd of enthusiastic children he played the role of the techno-scientist well.
“We’re hoping it will excite [kids] about what’s possible for their own future, because we actually need more and more people to do work in science and technology, and mathematics,” he said. “Even at Google we can’t hire enough people who have these skills.”
One of the crowded booths had TV sets and video game controllers. Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, believes that games are among the best ways to interest children in STEM. He said, “If you want to get kids to program, get them to make something they’re excited about.”
Lantz said games represent that sweet spot between technology, art, and interaction. He also noted that the industry is changing, as game development used to be a job reserved for people in major companies, yet online marketplaces and access to development tools have led to an increasingly popular crowd of independent developers.
“New York City is starting to blossom as a game developer hub because of the indie developers,” Lantz said, noting that the draw is that games are a form of technology with broad artistic possibilities.
Teaching STEM through forms of creativity was a common theme. Louisa Campbell from gadgITERATION stood behind a booth covered with common toys wired with tinfoil, copper strips, and computer chips.
“We’re introducing engineering through the portal of creativity,” Campbell said, pausing briefly to ask a young girl “Do you know how electricity moves?”
Many of the children at the event were from summer camp programs. Jasmine Furs, a camp counselor from Goodwill Cornerstone, said one her campers got excited after getting one of the many gadgets to light up.
Furs said she was enjoying the event with the kids because “it’s something new.”