How A DIY Computer Empowered My Girls (And Blew Their Dad’s Mind)
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My 7-year-old, Lizzie, loves adventures. So last week I let her tag along for the West Coast leg of my book tour. On the flight home, halfway from Los Angeles to Cleveland, she asked, “Daddy, why are pilots always boys?”
“Well,” I said, “they’re not all boys. Girls can be pilots, too.”
“You used to fly airplanes, right?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said, “when I was in the Navy.”
“Were there lots of girl pilots?”
She had me there. When I left the military over a decade ago, some of the best aviators I knew were women, but the vast majority of my co-pilots were men. I tried to explain this to Lizzie—that the opportunities for girls are endless, that the world is wide open to whatever adventures she might seek out. But as our plane began its descent into Cleveland, our pilot’s baritone voice rang over the PA. I felt my point being drowned out.
There wasn’t a single challenge I faced that my girls could not have handled. Plenty of math, physics, engineering — nothing that should require a “Boys Only” placard at the door.
We arrived home to find a package on our doorstep. Lizzie tore into it — if there’s one thing my kid enjoys more than adventures, it is opening boxes. Inside was a computer, or, at least, the parts to make one. It was a build-your-own-computer kit.
“Cool!” Lizzie said. We carefully removed the processor “brain” and laid it on the dining room table. We lined up all the other pieces in a neat row – a speaker, the screen and stand, the cables, and power supply. Lizzie’s concentration level was off the charts. She really wanted to get this right.
“OK, let’s go through the directions,” I said. We flipped through the guidebook, pausing to learn about what each part did. With the included magnifying glass, we inspected each circuit and marveled at the minute connections. Lizzie discovered that monitor was not just flat and black, but made up of 10,000 tiny dots.
“Those are pixels,” I said, reading aloud. “They change colors a hundred times a second to make the things we see on the screen.”
“Let’s build it!” Lizzie said.
That is when my 11-year-old, Katie, discovered the 2 of us hunched over the dining room table, surrounded by circuit boards, wires, and bits of torn cardboard. Katie dove in between us and started snapping pieces together as if by instinct. This was not easy for me — my inner pilot kept screaming, “What about the checklist?!”
But as I saw this machine coming together, my inner kid won out. We set the guidebook aside, and the 3 of just started figuring it out. In 20 minutes, my daughters and I built ourselves a computer. And it all came together (mostly) without a hitch. I did, however, earn one well-deserved eye roll from my 7-year-old.
My inner pilot kept screaming, ‘What about the checklist?!’ But as I saw this machine coming together, my inner kid won out. We set the guidebook aside and the 3 of just started figuring it out.
“Daddy,” Lizzie said, “That’s an HDMI cable – you’re trying to shove it into the USB port.”
“Say what?” I said.
Katie explained. “HDMI is for video, Dad. USB is for … other stuff. Just trust us.”
Clearly, my girls were in charge of this build.
By the time we made the last connection, I was bouncing in my seat. I could not wait to power up our machine and see the screen come to life. We plugged it in and were rewarded with a welcome screen. With two clicks on the keyboard, we launched a coding tutorial. I momentarily froze – if the HDMI/USB cables were enough to flummox me, this was going to be my undoing.
But while I was thumbing through the guidebook (again), Lizzie and Katie began hammering away on the keyboard, instinctively figuring it out (again). I looked up to see my girls choosing between several available programs. They opened a drawing app, and with a few simple cues started turning lines of syntax into art.
The term “digital native” finally makes sense to me. My girls have grown up surrounded by computers. While simple things sometimes intimidate the “non-natives” like me, kids have a seemingly effortless ability to soak up the language of this new world. It means they can learn to code a home-built computer while Dad is still nose-deep in the instructions. It also means, for girls especially, that they take note of the “Boys Only” signs everywhere they go.
I thought back to the flight with Lizzie that morning, to her question about female pilots. I reflected on my own path through flight school, how there wasn’t a single challenge I faced that my girls could not have handled. Plenty of math, physics, and engineering. Someday soon, they’ll probably have to know basic computer code, too. None of that, however, should require a “Boys Only” placard at the door.
I do believe the whole world awaits my daughters, in spite of those signs that still hang in too many places. It starts with a sense of adventure, like flying across the country to be part of a book tour. It is fed by an insatiable curiosity, the kind that compels kids everywhere to tear open boxes. And maybe, just maybe, it comes together in the building of a computer, at the dining room table, with their Dad by their side.
Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot and author of the memoir ‘Here Be Dragons: A Parent’s Guide to Rediscovering Purpose, Adventure, and the Unfathomable Joy of the Journey.’