Five years ago, budding 11-year-old Seattle scientist Rebecca Yeung was launching a homemade spacecraft high above Earth. The exploits with her sister gained the pair widespread publicity and a chance to meet President Obama at a White House science fair.
The experiences left Rebecca with a wide-eyed enthusiasm about science and technology.
In 2015, she joined geeky kids from across the Seattle region in a series of videos and an on-stage panel at that year’s GeekWire Summit. We talked about their views on science, technology, what was important in their lives at the time, and their aspirations for the years ahead.
We called them our “Future Innovators,” and the goal was to get a glimpse of the future by talking directly to some of the young people who would help to shape it.
“Everyone was excited about science and the way the world was going,” said Rebecca, now 16. “Since that time, obviously, a lot of things have changed in our country. But this year, especially, has revealed that maybe not everything was as hopeful and perfect as we thought it was at the time.”
Five years after we first heard their insights about technology, science, gadgets and geekdom, GeekWire’s “Future Innovators” don’t look or sound like little kids anymore. Their views are also evolving considerably — shaped not just by their additional years on the planet, but by the rapidly changing circumstances in the world around them.
We couldn’t get everyone together in person for a five-year reunion, so we caught up recently with Rebecca, Tanner Stark, Annabelle Kisky, and Marcus Bathum on Zoom calls. We came away with a better understanding of how some kids today view technological advances, remote learning during a pandemic, growing up with climate change, social media, self-driving cars and more.
Check out the video above for some of the highlights from our 2015 and 2020 discussions, and keep reading for more of what each “Future Innovator” thinks about the world now and what’s ahead.
And for more inspiring stories about young people embracing tech and science, check out GeekWire’s Junior Geek of the Month series.
This kid cracked us up in 2015 when he told us he didn’t yet work for Microsoft because he was “just 5.” Now an 11-year-old fifth grader, Tanner still doesn’t work for Microsoft, but he may well be on his way based on how much he seems to have changed in five years.
He said he watches the YouTube video from the Summit every day to get inspiration, even though he admits to being a little embarrassed by some of his answers as our youngest Future Innovator.
Tanner is home schooling now and while he misses the social aspect of in-person school, he said remote learning is better because at home you don’t have to line up and wait for everyone to be quiet.
“Now that I’m older and I know what life’s supposed to be like,” Tanner said, gearing up to crack us up once again, “I personally want to become a popular TikToker. If that career gets me somewhere, maybe I might move on to Microsoft.”
Tanner said maybe he’ll be able to create the Xbox Infinity S. Or something like that.
Tanner didn’t have a phone in 2015, much less a presence on TikTok, the popular video-sharing app. But now he uses a hand-me-down device from his mom and spends his time watching videos “with over 1 million views” to find viral inspiration. The morning we spoke, he posted a video of himself doing the dishes for his six followers.
Here are a few more insights from 2020 Tanner:
- Life during a pandemic: “Personally, this COVID social distancing thing is getting really hard for a lot of families and even children. Parents aren’t able to have a job which means they can’t afford food sometimes. And for kids it’s maybe not depressing, but disappointing that you can’t go see your friends.”
- Space travel: “That’s pretty dang cool that we’re going back to the moon. I think we can learn a lot from that — go collect moon rocks or some hypersonic-gizmo something-or-other drone. … If they do find water or some kind of living creature up in space, that would be a huge thing.”
- Favorite thing about technology: “How you can have extremely good internet anywhere … unless you have the phone that I have.”
Five years ago, Rebecca dropped the biggest applause line at the GeekWire Summit when she told a room full of techies that her main lesson learned from launching weather balloons to the edge of space with her sister was, “don’t speculate, rely on data.”
While it seemed at the time that Rebecca, with her love of physics and chemistry, was destined for a career in aerospace or something similar, the 16-year-old 10th grader at Seattle’s Lakeside School seems happily undecided these days.
“I think that we’re taught a lot when we’re younger that we can only grow up to be one thing, but I’ve realized over time that that’s not true,” she said. “I’m interested in several different things and have no idea where I’ll plan to go, but I want it to be something that I believe will help other people and makes me happy.”
School has gotten busier for Rebecca and her younger sister Kimberly, so they’ve retired from launching any new Loki Lego Launcher missions. The family turned its attention to building tiny houses to help address some of the crisis around homelessness in Seattle. And Rebecca’s outlook in general has been altered with a more mature understanding of the state of the world.
“I think it goes without saying that this year was a very trying year for everybody,” she said. “But I’m actually pretty optimistic about it. Because I think that, like we saw this year with the protests in social justice movements, that as a society and country, we are ready to improve things and try and make things better.”
Here are a few more insights from 2020 Rebecca:
- Screen time: “I’m on a screen pretty much all the time now, especially with remote school. I also spend a lot of time connecting with friends and family online. I do use social media every day and it’s a pretty big part of my life now, especially to try and stay connected to people I’m not living with and can’t see every day.”
- Will we go to the moon or Mars? “I’m not sure. I think that the science and innovation is out there for us to do it. I don’t know whether people who make decisions about it will decide that’s where we want to focus.”
- Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook: “On the one hand I really want to recognize these tech giants, as they’re called, have done a lot for our society and having that much innovation in one place is consistently leading to better, more convenient things for people. On the other hand, when you have these giant companies and a considerably small number of people at the top making decisions that affect so many of our lives, there’s room for problems there.”
Annabelle is a 16-year-old 10th grader now who is doing independent study at home, with plans to get a jump on things and enter Running Start next fall. She’s interested in psychology.
“I’m not really sure how I found that as something I want to pursue,” she said. “But I am interested in it because I just think it’s really cool to try and understand how people work, how social connections come into that.”
Annabelle seemed to have a read on things as a younger kid, literally, when we handed her an old Walkman cassette player five years ago to see if she knew what it was and she correctly said, “It’s a Walkman” … because the name was on the device.
When it comes to tech she’s using the most these days, Annabelle spends a lot of time talking to friends on the app Discord.
“It lets me play games and socialize with my friends no matter where we are in the world, and makes this whole quarantine a lot more bearable,” she said.
Although her schooling routine hasn’t changed during the pandemic, Annabelle does miss going to museums such as the Museum of Pop Culture, Pacific Science Center, The Museum of Flight, Living Computers: Museum + Labs and more. She misses seeing the exhibits close up and messing with hands-on interactive elements.
“I’m a very hands-on learner. I like to learn by doing,” she said. “Before COVID, we were always on the go. Most every day had a ‘field trip’ of some sort. I struggle to keep engaged when I can look but not touch or read but not experience.”
Here are a few more insights from 2020 Annabelle:
- News consumption: “It feels like every morning I wake up and there’s more bad news. The good news is it means that our communication technology has gotten to the point where anyone can get the news almost instantly. But that’s also kind of a bad thing because now you hear all of the bad news all at once. It’s sort of a lot to process when it just keeps coming.”
- Space travel: “I’m not sure how long it will be before we send humans to Mars. Because we’ve sent rovers and stuff before, but trying to support a human is a lot different than a robot.”
- Tech the world could use now: “Cleaner forms of transportation. There are already things like electric cars, but they aren’t as widespread as they should be.”
As improvisational as jazz music can be, it’s just not the same over Zoom, at least as far as Marcus is concerned. Playing in his school’s jazz band is one of the things he misses most about in-person school during the pandemic.
“Playing band over a computer screen and recording is just not the same as getting to actually play with other people,” said the 14-year-old West Seattle High School freshman, who plays both trombone and baritone sax.
When Marcus was 9, his favorite technology at the time was the smartphone, mainly because he could play “Minecraft” on the device. Marcus doesn’t really play the popular world-building game anymore, but he’s still into phones and computers, and the Microsoft Surface, which he uses to do his schoolwork.
Like Annabelle, Marcus is taking an interest in the professions around mental health and the science around why people act the way they do or what triggers certain emotions. He might want to become a psychiatrist or therapist.
Here are a few more insights from 2020 Marcus:
- Political change: “I’m hopeful because I believe with Biden in charge things could be a lot better. I also don’t really believe that too many things are going to get done. I don’t know if stuff like universal health care will be achieved or real change [around] global warming and climate change.”
- Self-driving cars: “I’m real excited to start driving — theoretically by the summer I should be. I’m hopeful for self-driving cars. I feel like there’s a lot of people who are going to be really supportive of that and a lot of people are just not going to trust it.”
- Social media: “I have an Instagram account. That’s really the only social media I get into, but I try not to go on it too much because I know I’ll get addicted to it and keep scrolling my feed. Some of my friends use Twitter. I don’t think any of my friends use Facebook … my parents do.”