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Ask HN: Resources to encourage teen on becoming computer engineer?
111 points by tomrod 37 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 93 comments
Howdy HN

A teenager I am close with would like to become a computer engineer. Whet resources, books, podcasts, camps, or experiences do you recommend to support this teen's endeavor?

The single most supportive thing you could do for them is to hook them up with like-minded peers.

If they have friends the same age interested in the same thing, there's no limit for what they can accomplish, with or without the other material.

Not only because peers can help out in finding and recommending "teaching" material, but also because as humans we tend to want to do what our friends do.

I think these peers can be people they interact with only online, and not in person, but that is my own conjecture. The rest is supported by evidence.

+100 on this. A social environment that encourages this is a huge motivator. A good FIRST Robotics team is one way that you might get this (not all teams will have great student experiences, but they’re probably your best bet for this type of environment.)

This is what clinched my career path for me. When I was 12 I and three of my friends would code on our TI-82’s and share that with each other. Being able to get positive feedback from people I liked spurred me to spend even more time at it than I would otherwise have. I wrote apps for the TI-83 and TI-89 in high school (helpers for doing synthetic division of polynomials, a valence shell calculator for chemistry, a Mandelbrot generator, some interactive physics apps for solving common physics word problems), which also temporarily turned me from the nerdy kid to the most popular kid in the class, which was another big step toward cementing my future path. I’m not sure I’d be where I am today if not for all that positive feedback from my peers.

Throughout my childhood and teenhood I always was interested in programming and it wasnt till having met some developers that I asked questions and they helped me to understand a lot more.

I would always read things but documentations hard to relate to when you are building stuff you have no interest in or it just covers the blueprints and no path to the building.

A lot of languages have improved in this regard thankfully but back then it felt a little lost for me.

So I gotta agree. Finding online friends with shared interest is best because if you find the right people they wont make you feel ashamed of what you dont know just glad that they help you through it regardless.

See if there is a FIRST robotics team nearby at a high school. I did not participate in FIRST at that age (my interests were elsewhere), but my friends who did say it was a pivotal experience for them. You learn lots of hands on skills, get to work with experienced industry mentors, and also make friends with similar interests. There are many components to designing the robots, so they can try out and see what they like.

I’m not sure how teams are in the pandemic, but it is probably worth it to try!

Another caveat: depending what you mean by computer engineering, I’m not sure if many FIRST teams actually design their own chips. But they certainly do a lot of closely related stuff.

In general, a concrete application seems to be a great motivation. I resisted my parents’ efforts to get me interested in programming until I realized it could help me make Minecraft mods.

This! I participated in two FIRST robotics competitions as a teenager. I can say, it definitely was a pivotal experienced for me on the path toward a computer engineering degree.

>would like to become a computer engineer.

If you deliberately chose the phrase "computer engineer" to ask this question, are you saying the teen is interested in designing computer hardware instead of just software programming?

Just to be on the same page with terminology, Zach Star has short videos comparing "computer engineering" vs "computer science":



Therefore, if computer engineering is indeed the specialty, there are more detailed class videos such as hardware architecture from CMU:


Princeton has a similar computer architecture curriculum on Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/learn/comparch

Hardware is their interest.

Since HW is their interest, you might want to probe a little bit why they specifically chose "Computer Engineering" and not "Eletrical Engineering".

I know this is dating myself, but I faced the same question about 25 years ago and chose computer engineering because I knew that I wanted a blend of HW and SW. Many of my classmates who were more interested in HW chose electrical as their specialty. Comp provided more optionality, and there was a lot of overlap, but EEs got to understand the nuts and bolts of HW and especially choose from a wider array of VLSI chip design electives.

One caveat to that: The EE curriculum is a bit more math heavy. In my university, CompE would take Calc I and Calc II, but EE's needed to take Calc III. EE's also needed to take electromagnetics - very heavy on calculus. Some other engineering courses that tend to have calculus. If you want to get deep into HW, this may be a good thing.

If the student dislikes math somewhat, I would not recommend EE. If they really dislike math, I would not recommend CompE either ;-)

Requirements can vary. The institution I went to did require a differential equations course after Calc III even for CompE students. And, yeah, it was painful.

Either way, I agree with you 100%; if the student doesn't like math, they are almost guaranteed to get weeded out by the calculus courses.

My university required diff eq for both EE and CompE. They did not require Calc III. Diff Eq is necessary if they're going to do anything with circuits. But I agree with you - it varies from institution to institution. My grad school, for example, requires the same math courses for CompE and EE for undergrad.

> Either way, I agree with you 100%; if the student doesn't like math, they are almost guaranteed to get weeded out by the calculus courses.

It's not that binary. I think the difference (in my undergrad) is that CompE's could struggle and manage to pass calculus (or even do well), and rarely need to use it in future courses in their Junior/Senior year. For them it's just a pain they need to get through and be done with it. EE students, though, are more likely going to need to take courses that require them to use the calculus they learned. Electromagnetics, control theory, communications theory, semiconductors, etc. Even the list of electives EE's could take were more calculus heavy compared to the list of electives for CompE's.

Did Calc1-3, E&M, ODEs, PDEs, LinAlg, Real Analysis as CompE.

Arduino boards are a great on ramp to computer hardware and programming. Hides a lot of the really hard stuff, and has tons of examples online for how to make it work.

Ben Eater is a guy who's started selling kits for building an 8 bit computer from discrete chips on a breadboard. A whole kit is $300, which is a bit steep for a teenager, but you can buy it and complete it in pieces as you're able.

I also think the suggestion about connecting them with like minded peers is an excellent one. A local FIRST robotics group or a makerspace would be excellent as far as making those connections goes.

1) the video series on building an computer from scratch is fantastic. It's valuable information no matter where in the tech stack you wind up in (or even if you don't wind up in tech) but also having a deep knowledge of these systems will be of considerable value down the line, because we aren't training kids in hardware as much anymore.


2) If their interest is a bit higher in the stack (like robotics e.g.), and they don't mind getting in the weeds and asking for help in the community, I would target learning with a raspberry pi system. My preferred target is Nerves; it's a bit more bare-bones, and there aren't drivers for everything, but the community is fantastic (the elixir slack / nerves is the place to be), and it's easy to get to a point where you are dropped into an IDE and you can just code.

I got into electronics by building simple radios. There was a Ladybird Book [1] that started with a crystal set then added extra bits to it like a transistor amplifier. It was all built using a DIY breadboard, the components were connected together using screws with countersunk washers fastened into a piece of wood. There was a whole hobby electronics scene with several magazines that provided designs to build as well as local shops or mail-order to get components.

If I were a teenager now then a FPGA development board with plenty of LEDs and ports could be good.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladybird_Books

Like, chip design or like robots?

It may also be worthwhile to look into Ben Eater https://www.youtube.com/user/eaterbc

A teen who doesn't know much about a field won't be able to describe things concretely.

Assuming that you actually mean computer engineer (as in digital logic and computer hardware) and not software developer, as so many people here are assuming, there are a lot of resources available:

For a gentle overview of how digital logic and CPUs work, Charles Petzold's book "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" is solid introduction. Nisan and Schocken's textbook "The Elements of Computing Systems" and the lessons at the NAND2Tetris site (https://www.nand2tetris.org/) are good if they want to get hands on with the subject.

There are a variety of robotics and electronics interfacing kits based off the Arduino and Raspberry Pi available through Adafruit and SparkFun. If they're more interested in the digital logic side, Digilent provides FPGA boards and test instruments intended for use in educational environments that also include tutorials https://store.digilentinc.com/the-zynq-book-tutorials-for-zy....

[EDIT] I've seen some recommendations for the video game Factorio in this thread and, odd as it may sound, it would not be a bad gauge of interest. Digital logic is all about getting the right signals to the right place at the right time and doing the right thing with them and Factorio definitely teaches analogues of that.

[EDIT 2] Another interesting project for them might be to build a computer from chips. Ben Eater has a design, tutorials, and sells kits for building a 6502 computer (Same CPU as the Apple II) on a breadboard: https://eater.net/6502. (Not sure I'd want to try that without a 5V tolerant logic analyzer but they're cheaply available nowadays, e.g. https://www.seeedstudio.com/Logic-Pirate-p-1750.html) Note that I don't vouch for any of these, they're just examples of what's available out there that your friend can investigate if it piques their interest.

> Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" is solid introduction

Very good book indeed.

Came here to recommend this book. This book is what inspired me to get into STEM.

This is definitely one of the best books I've ever read related to computers. Highly recommend.

Leave them at their grandparents house for a month, with a 286 and an old BASIC book.

This is how I started! 2 months in a tiny village with no internet. My journey began with a book titled 'The secrets and mysteries of the command line'.

This is how I started too!!!

(And take away their phone)

My grandfather was an electronic engineer, he taught me how to etch PCBs.

There's one minor issue to look out for, which is the social aspect. For better or worse, "computer science" has become the hot field that hyper competitive parents want their kids to study. It's the new "pre med." Some kids thrive in it, others are turned off by it.

That's my observation as a parent, not a commentary on computer science itself.

It's just something to watch out for. Some kids will need help maintaining interest and valuing their own abilities in that atmosphere.

I am about to graduate with my degree in computer engineering so I have a few good resources for you. I was in a similar position, and what really helped me was doing personal projects. Some that I can recommend are:

Ben Eaters videos on creating an 8 bit computer on a breadboard will teach digital logic, computer engineering fundamentals etc.

Building your own operating system, the osdev subreddit and wiki have many great resources to go from someone who knows c to understanding how that relates to the hardware.

Anything robotics related, working with Arduino and other microcontrollers is another big one, as that is part of any electrical and computer engineering degree.

If you need any other resources or have questions feel free to reach out, I am happy to give advice.

Second anything by Ben Eater.

Just get them a copy of Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold and make them read it end to end without distractions in a week :-)

Buy him or her a Raspberry Pi if they don't have a computer yet. Once on the Internet, any kid can find out the rest.

Programming in Python, then assembler (perhaps on a simulator?) is fun for some kids, and fosters an understanding of algorithmic principles and the operational precision required to make the machine do what you want.

There may be like-minded teenagers around? Learning together is more fun. A good model is having peers to learn with, and occasional access to mentors (watching people to program is faster than reading books). Some cities also have makers labs that anyone can use.

I think the internet is a great resource and a huge distraction. You can start looking for some "very specific thing" and 2 hours later you can't remember why you opened the browser.

The raspberry pi is a great suggestion, but I'd mix your suggestion with another on here: dump the kid at their grandparents house with a 286 and a BASIC book, and take their phone away.

https://www.nand2tetris.org/ Might be of interest

> “arouse in the other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.” > ― Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

I assume you want them to have a leveraged, high-impact job, rather than happening to spend most of their life on a certain type of problem.

Help by getting them exposure to people doing the work. A chance to talk, a chance to learn about the impact of the work. Learning materials are more accessible than ever, but a unique reason to pursue a particular path is less convincing than ever.

Empower them to find a path in that general direction. Help them find projects that they like (or love), that can contribute meaningfully to, and projects for which they care about the outcome—it has some significance to them (or delivers clear value to benefactors they care about).

my $0.02 - fuel interest and discovery rather than overloading with dry/monotonous material

- encourage the practice of looking at the technology prevalent around and deconstructing those solutions into basic building blocks. to quote Steve Jobs "...everything around you was made up by people no smarter than you..."

- along the same lines, imagine how problems around you can be solved, and use technology to bridge the gap between imagination and reality. doesn't matter how fragile or robust these thoughts are, over time they will refine and sharpen.

- others here might have better recommendations for tinkering but raspberry pi/arduino/etc types of hardware are inexpensive, easy to hack and theres mountains of info online to keep feeding the interest over time.

I would ask them "what is something you want to build? something simple?" and help them. Mentor them. Teach them how to research on the internet the problems they are looking to solve (sometimes people just don't know the right words to look for).

At least me as a teenager I was a very project driven person. It gave me a good feeling to build something neat. Much more interesting than classes and such.

Or is this about a career (teenager could mean someone about to go to college soon)? Maybe introduce them to some people that do the job they want, if it's not you?

I'd ask them what they want and how they work, and really figure out something that works well for them.

I found working with relatively simple 8-bit microcontroller architectures (e.g. Atmel AVR, Microchip PIC), studying the datasheets and programming them in assembly, to be an effective and gratifying introduction to the basics of CPU architecture.

Hacker News, Python, and Robotics (arduino / raspberry pi / Sundance / etc)

I've learned so much from the HN community, Python is a good first language, robotics is hands on, fun, and important going forward

First thing is to ask this teenager why do they want to become a computer engineer? What do they think computers engineers do and why do they think they will enjoy doing that for a living?

I'd drop "for a living" and just ask if they will enjoy doing it. If it only ends up as a hobby and not a career, they can still enrich their lives with it. And if it's a career, too, that's even better.

There's no need to make them think it's not worth doing if it's not a career.


My fascination with technology came about because I was born at a time when this type of program was broadcast on TV, and 8-bit computers were cheap enough even for my family's circumstances. Most of them could be opened with a Phillips screwdriver, and came with a "biblical" manual that included programming (usually some form of BASIC).

Computers today after more like televisions of the 80s. You can sit back simply allow content to stream at you without much in the way of interaction or any know-how. There's nothing to using a computer today. Everybody has them. Nobody is imposed by their capabilities any more, so I think we've largely stopped wondering about the possibilities.

Maybe "The Mighty Micro" can still ignite some of that wonder.

Since its hardware they are interested in I’d really recommend getting started with an arduino. You can build a lot of cool stuff and there is a great community.

For real in depth “computer engineering” an FPGA is the next step. But that requires a serious time commitment with a steep learning curve, and you won’t find nearly as much resources or hand holding.

Does this teenager play computer games? Some games have modding tools that serve as a great entry point for this endeavor, like Minecraft or Skyrim.

EDIT: If you actually meant hardware engineering, then I can recommend this fun introduction to digital logic: http://nandgame.com/

"Ask HN: Something like Khan Academy but full curriculum for grade schoolers?" [through undergrads] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23794001

"Ask HN: How to introduce someone to programming concepts during 12-hour drive?" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15454071

"Ask HN: Any detailed explanation of computer science" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15270458 : topologically-sorted? Information Theory and Constructor Theory are probably at the top:

> A bottom-up (topologically sorted) computer science curriculum (a depth-first traversal of a Thing graph) ontology would be a great teaching resource.

> One could start with e.g. "Outline of Computer Science", add concept dependency edges, and then topologically (and alphabetically or chronologically) sort.

> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_computer_science

> There are many potential starting points and traversals toward specialization for such a curriculum graph of schema:Things/skos:Concepts with URIs.

> How to handle classical computation as a "collapsed" subset of quantum computation? Maybe Constructor Theory?

> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructor_theory

https://westurner.github.io/hnlog/ ... Ctrl-F "interview", "curriculum"

I've seen people with only very rudimentary programming experience get quite caught up in Elevator Saga [1]. Makes you think about basic programming as well as simple algorithms.

[1] https://play.elevatorsaga.com/

The novel: "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow.

Get him a microcontroller and peripherals from Crowd Supply, that run Micropython, such as TinyPico.

Or similar from Adafruit.

Buy some servos from a hobby aircraft store, breadboard parts kit and a bench power supply.

There is nothing so fun and motivating as making a microcontroller do visible things.

I think the best way to learn something is to have a project. What’s the teen interested in? Is there a simple project related to their interests that would capture their attention enough to ride the highs and lows of the learning process?

This. Personally, I think something that involves looking behind the curtain on websites would be pretty gratifying to most teenagers. It's a bit of a revelation to see how the webpages they interact with all the time work.

Maybe scripting something to make a headless browser to do useful tasks, or crawling pages.

Get them an arduino and a strip of LEDs and teach them how to attach the LEDs to their clothes.

They're going to have to learn a lot about programming, and some about electronic circuit design as well (eventually).

My kid started playing with Lightbot[1]. It teaches recursion, loops, conditionals, and is fun. I would recommend LOGO as an elegant functional programming language, if you want something besides the usual ugly python for-loops; Berkeley logo for quick REPL, NetLogo for more advanced concepts as agents for example.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZFK5yKQLdU&list=PLL6dgai5Nn...

One option is to have them set out to learn enough to actually do the Linux from scratch build.

If that’s a bit much, then ask them what tech they find most interesting. Look for diy projects they could undertake for it. The books and resources they use will depend greatly upon this.

Thankfully there are tons of great resources for doing this in tech!

Edit-another option is to work toward them maintaining their own server for something they like to use. I’d probably keep it local until they’ve got a lot of the tools and knowledge required to actually harden a box.

I think I did not see any menton of home automation in the answers so far.

Home Assistant (a software to manage home automation) + some sensors, a wifi power strip, a wall switch and then AppDaemon to do the automations in Python is a great wayvto immediately see in practice what you do in software.

One must be careful with woring on mains (with some elements, this can be aviodable for quite some time) but beside that it is a lot of fun.

If they live in a house there are plenty of things in the gzrden to automate as well.

LiveOverflow captures some of the spirit of hacker culture. 3Blue1Brown to increase his/her math enthusiasm/knowledge (gotta pass calc3 when you hit uni)



Why ? In 15 years there will be no doubts “over production” of cs kids , old managers probably will still have their job , as young cs kid it’s going to be a tough times. There are so many new professions for you kid to discover. Every year bring us professions that didn’t exists a year ago, lots of them are well paid because they are new

The salary might be lower, but there are SO many things that can be automated, I really don't think we're in danger of running out of economically interesting things for CS grads to do.

If anything, I think it's going to become more like basic literacy, required to do many economically useful things.

This reminds me of a post here before. I read someone here post how he got his initially unwilling teen son to learn how to code.

The dad tried to get him into learning to code but the son was uninterested

However after the son worked at a sandwich shop for 6 months earning minimum wage, the son came to dad asking for help with learning how to code.

I thought that was hilarious.

I became interested when I realized you could mod weapons on quake 2 by editing source code.

What games are they playing?

Any simple 2D game maker or software library with YouTube tutorials should get a teenager started. As a teenager, I found it cool to program something and then enjoy the fruits of my work by playing my own game. HTML canvas and JavaScript is enough to get started for example.

Get them hooked on reading scifi. That's what got me interested. Before a kid is going to want to tackle actual coding/learning and all that they need to be hooked on the idea of it.

Approaching it direct on rarely works with teens.

Maybe start with William Gibson, cyberpunk is on the rise.

Robocode - it's what kick-started my software career.



Go through part one of the nand2tetris course on Coursera to learn what goes on inside a CPU, then build a physical computer using an old CPU like the 6502 or Z80. You'll find lots of inspiration for that on YouTube.

Is the teenager interested in becoming a computer engineer, first and foremost?

From description of post: "A teenager I am close with would like to become a computer engineer."

For starting from zero - there is a fun multiplatform game "LightBot" that introduces programming functions


How to build your own flight simulator in C++

was the book that hooked me on programming when I was young. Plus I needed to learn physics and numerics to make things work, which turned out amazingly helpful in high school.

I recommend checking out https://www.adafruit.com -- good blogs, kits, and learning resources in the hardware realm.

In Germany, https://jugendhackt.org/ is a great place to get inspiration, meet like-minded peers and learn.

In a word, synthesizers. https://teenage.engineering/products/po

Maybe freenode IRC? (or discord I guess)

Just the one rule to make your question as easy to answer as possible. Best with minimal example reproducing your problem if it's that concrete.

They should definitely try the Nand2tetris online course!

> A teenager I am close with

What? Close how?

> would like to become a computer engineer.

Get good grades and go to college?

These "ASK HN" posts are starting to feel so artificial and forced.

Conversation. Take their ambition seriously enough to give them your time instead of buying them something.

How about getting them familiar with raspberrypi? It's relative cheap and lots of resources around it.

The Elements of Computing Systems, also known as “Nand2Tetris”

It's a great resource for anyone starting out.

Show her/him the average salary levels. ;)

Jokes apart: the python tutorials are a good place to begin.


If building little games and tools is fun, there might be a future,

I’d offer to help fund/mentor on projects and see where that goes

questions to ask: 1) why do you want to become a computer engineer 2) what does a computer engineer do 3) what do you hope to achieve by becoming a computer engineer

Great book: computer architecture a quantitative approach

Programming is so pervasive, I would try to meet them where they are at.

Do they like Minecraft? Help them run and manage their own server. Do they like design? Buy them a domain and then let them build their own website?

"Dive Into Deep Learning" - d2l.ai

"The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles"

And some course or book that teaches the physics of semiconductors.

Also some basic introduction to quantum computing.

An introduction or refresher on the fundamentals of electric energy.

Most programmers I know, myself included, got started by making simple games for fun. If you don't know which language to choose, just start with JavaScript.

What’s in your teenager’s interest?

Play factorio

You have to go with a three pronged attack.

Subliminal, liminal and superliminal.

Set them up with Scratch and have them make some video games.

I should have added more detail here.

With Scratch you can create animations/video games and get instant feedback. It runs right out of the browser, so there are no setup issues to trip over.

  There are a good set of extensions to do text to voice, music, etc.

  There are hardware interfaces like makeymakey and microbit.  
I was able to re-created my senior robotics project in 2 hours using the cutebot that is driven by the microbit.

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