Phone Phreaks, STEM Freaks, and STEM Education


I have just finished a fascinating book about the history of phone hacking from the 1950s to the 1980s, Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. The phone system was one of the first communications networks in America, and as such, just like today, it attracted its share of amateur hobbiests who wanted to understand how it worked, including finding out how to make free long distance calls, conferences calls and the like. While Apple founder Steve Wosniack may have been the first to create a “blue box” using digital instead of analogue technology (a blue box is the term for an electronic box made to mimic sounds on the phone system in order to trick the phone network into doing what the user wanted) he was hardly the first young person to “hack” the phone system. It turns out that a whole network of folks—what became known as Phone Phreaks emerged, and many became loosely tied into a network that compared notes on best practices. Some were high school students bored with school and fascinated with telephony, others college students also bored with classes. Several of the most prominent were blind students and for them the phone network held special appeal since it was a world based on sound, not sight. As Lapsley writes, “Phone Phreaks live to solve puzzles. They spend time observing, gathering data, thinking, and inventing theories about how things fit together. They think up experiments – things they can try – to solve whatever puzzle they’re working on.” Sounds a lot like science.

While the book presents a fascinating history of these amateur hackers and the efforts by Ma Bell to catch and reign them in, it also provides an important insight into STEM education. For these phreaks phone hacking was not something they were doing to be anti-social (at least most of the time), or something easy they were dabbling in in their spare time, it was a technically complex task they were passionate about; in fact in most cases, obsessive about it. Yet, they all had pursued this passion in spite of their formal education. For the education system provided them no space to follow this passion, despite the fact that many of these individuals became self-taught highly skilled network engineers.

It’s no different today, large numbers of young people are passionate — “phreaks” if you will — about some aspect related to STEM, but like the original phone phreaks they must pursue these passions outside of formal schooling, where virtually all high schools and many colleges impose a daunting array of requirements and core curriculum based on the notion that they know best what students should learn, even if the students simply don’t care to learn it. This is likely why the High School Survey of Student Engagement found that two-thirds of American high school students are bored every day in class. Do we honestly think that people will learn STEM when they are bored?

As a result, fixing STEM education is not going to come from web campaigns to make it cool, from better qualified teachers, requiring more science courses, or from subjecting high schools to the creativity-killing regime of No Child Left Behind. It will come from embracing educational innovation and letting many many new models of education emerge, most built around the core principle of following student passions.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
  • Fred Goodwin

    So what would you suggest?