Caroline Smrstik Gentner: In your school’s “Young meets old” project, retirees teach 10- to 14-year-olds how to build a loudspeaker. Why did you decide to introduce a project like this?
Reto Helbling: Our school is quite advanced in the use of digital technology. We’ve been using iPads for a decade, and even have a 3D printer. So when our students go on to complete an apprenticeship in a trade, as most of them do, they know all about the latest software. However, reports from company trainers suggest that our graduates lack certain practical skills, such as soldering or working with circuit boards.
We’ve paired retirees with young people before – asking students to help older people navigate new media in the CompiSternli project, for example – and the idea of having knowledge flow in the other direction, too, seemed promising. So now retired electronics engineers are teaching kids the basics of a trade.
CSG: How did you go about organizing these workshops?
RH: We recruited a retired engineer through an online site that offers seniors opportunities to volunteer, and he encouraged some of his colleagues to join him. We decided to focus on building a loudspeaker, since that interests the kids. But then came the pandemic. Our first instructor was 75 years old, and since his age put him in a risk group for contracting COVID-19, he was no longer able to participate. I should also note that it’s impossible to maintain social distance when soldering. After completing a pilot, we had to postpone the project. We’re now offering this workshop as an elective this semester, with just six students per instructor.
“It is our responsibility to prepare students to succeed in a professional, digitalized world.”
CSG: Your school provides the kind of digital learning environment that more traditional schools would like to emulate. But you’re looking in the opposite direction. Why?
RH: It is our responsibility to prepare students to succeed in a professional, digitalized world. In the 20 years we have helped young people make the transition to the working world, we’ve always asked ourselves, “What skills will they need in their professional lives?” A student who is training to become an automation engineer understands construction because of her experience with Lego robotics and programming at our school, but being a versatile programmer alone isn’t enough. However, there’s not enough room in the regular curriculum to experiment with circuit boards, learn about resistance, and discover how an electronic device is put together.
We wanted to find a creative way to address that problem. Intergenerational contact enables our students to learn new skills, and the participating seniors are gratified to see that their skills are still in demand.
“While society and technology are constantly changing, one thing remains constant: human relationships.”
CSG: Not every school has the digital resources you have, of course. But might other schools borrow your “Young meets old” approach?
RH: Absolutely! This is easy to implement, since the costs of a soldering iron and materials are minimal. We have also written a guide for organizing a project like ours.
While society and technology are constantly changing, one thing remains constant: human relationships. People skills will never be out of fashion. Projects like this one help students develop their interpersonal skills and learn to relate to those outside their peer group. When they enter the workplace, those skills will be invaluable.