Steve Wozniak, one of the original co-founders of Apple and now Chief Scientist for Fusion-io turned a "fireside chat" session at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) on Tuesday into a vaguely structured conversation about what was on his mind.

Wozniak voices his views on education during ESC's Fireside Chat session
Wozniak voices his views  on education during the fireside chat session on ESC Silicon Valley

WOZ, is an icon in Silicon Valley for not only his founding of Apple. He is dedicated to making his home town of San Jose a better place to live. Whether that is supporting the local national league hockey team, the San Jose Sharks or founding a Segway Polo team called the Silicon Valley Aftershocks and creating a uniquely international sport. Woz is a very passionate person when it comes to his opinions about engineering and education.

Wozniak was asked about his early educational experiences and he launched into a semi-biographical and sociological overview of how he started his innovative engineering career. He even had a ham radio license in the 6th grade. Wozniak puts a high value on self-directed education. Woz’s father was an aerospace engineer as were many in that expanding Silicon Valley bedroom community. He admitted to being highly curious from a young age about anything having to do with science and math.

The keynote hall was too small to fit all the attendees - every seat was taken
The keynote hall was too small to fit all the attendees – every seat was takento hear Woz in action

When asked about his employment at Hewlett-Packard Woz said it gave him time to participate as a team player and expanded his knowledge of engineering, as well as letting him investigate his own exciting ideas after work. Wozniak said at that time, HP encouraged after hours work and helped with access to tools and supplies, as well as work space. He said that era of HP was a great time to be working there. He says engineering should be a learning process of striving to make something better ? be it hardware or software. During his time at HP, Woz worked on their highly successful calculators. He was hired without a college education. "If you can do the job, you should be hired," he said with an impish smile.

Wozniak described American education as stagnant, obsessed with testing and destructive of creativity. That got a big round of applause from the full house of engineers. He said children in American schools are pressured to complete a fixed path in a prescribed time and measured by statewide and national standardized tests. Woz claims he learned his independence in spite of the rigid school rules.

Woz says his eight years as a part-time teacher "secretly" teaching at the middle and high school levels allowed him the time to repeat lessons until students grasped them. Full-time teachers are on a tight time schedule and have to move on even if some or many of the students do not fully grasp the information. Students are often not allowed different ways to think and kids get discouraged if they try to challenge the system. He said: "By third grade, teachers can pretty much spot the kids who?ve given up on education, for life." Most often that means they conform to the school rules and are educated out of their creativity.

Woz answers questions from the audience at ECS
Woz answers questions from the audience at ECS Keynote Hall

Wozniak explained that his college aged children had attended public schools. He said, "I actually think home-schooling is very, very good as an alternative." That got another round of applause from the audience. Woz challenged the audience to become involved with their local schools. Take the time to find out what you can do to make the schools better for your local kids.

He is a big supporter of the FIRST Robotics programs for all high schools students. Interestingly, last week the Bellarmine College Preparatory of San Jose, one of the oldest Jesuit institutions in California, won the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis, Missouri. Woz says FIRST Robotics needs judges who are not spectators. Become involved in the process of learning right along side the students about how robots work.

Wozniak said he was and still is a nerd who gets to do different things. With real insights into his personality, Wozniak said, "I did my best work late at night, alone. You?ve got to be motivated, and the best reasons are internal." His self-described nerdish and loner behavior is reflected in his comment: "It?s better if you?re not into partying and you don?t have much chance of having a girlfriend or a wife."

If Steve Wozniak ever visits your area, take the time to go hear him speak. You will come away feeling some of his passion and strong opinions about computing and life.