Gadgets like the iPhone and iPad are considered cool by most kids in America, but learning about science and technology is decidedly not cool as far as most of them are concerned. Ask a kid about LeBron James and he’ll most likely perk up and say, “Yeah, he’s cool!” Mention the name Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple , and that same kid will set the ringtone on his iPhone to crickets chirping.
Many of the world’s greatest inventions have come from America, including the light bulb, telephone and mobile phone, but America’s role as a leader in innovation is slipping. And you can’t just “Tiger Mom” kids in America into loving science and technology.
“Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers – they were all here!” exclaimed Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway personal transporter. “But today, because of the great wealth of this country, instead of becoming great creators, we’ve become great consumers.”
“Kids in this country, they’re worried about who’s winning in the NBA or who will win the Super Bowl. They don’t care about the race to the superconductor,” he said.
So Kamen decided to fight cool with cool: He created FIRST, an organization that encourages innovation by kids through a nationwide robotics competition.
The competition is based on the sports model, only instead of playing basketball or football, the teams build robots that compete against each other. There are bleachers set up, just like in a stadium, with stadium lights and referees. The teams bring their fans, who wave signs and pom poms and some who even paint their faces in the team colors, plus cheerleaders and mascots that they share with their sports teams.
“We wanted to package science and technology into something kids can understand,” Kamen said. “Girls have to stop being ashamed of how smart they are — and guys have to realize how cool it is to be smart.”
The cool factor seems to be working: The competitors walk tall when they’re on the robot-competition field, more like basketball players than the shy kid in the science lab.
And their classmates are starting to take notice. At this year’s regional competition in New York City, a cheerleader from the CS 21 elementary school in Brooklyn, who cheers for both sports and robotics, was asked which was cooler — cheering for her school’s sports team or cheering for the robot-building team. She replied: “Both.”
In the beginning, Kamen had to tap his network of friends in the corporate world to help coach the kids and give them guidance. But today, so many companies have realized the benefits of investing in innovation at the kid level, there are more than 30,000 teachers and professionals who mentor kids in the FIRST competition and more than 3,000 companies sponsor teams and events, including defense giant BAE and toy maker Lego.
These companies not only donate their time and manpower but they also offer more than $20 million in scholarship money.
BAE is one of the biggest sponsors of the FIRST competitions — they sponsor more than 180 teams and donate $2 million each year in the form of team sponsorship and scholarships for winners. The company also works with the 4H and participates in TARC, the Team America Rocketry Challenge, and SeaPerch, a robot-building program that teaches kids how to build underwater robots that can then go on to perform different problem-solving tasks.
Doug Coffey, vice president of executive communications, says the company’s main objective isn’t just to produce future employees of BAE, but also to help develop a large population of students who are “STEM literate,” which means that they have a grasp on science, technology, engineering and math.
There are always some kids who are naturally STEM literate, but one of the coolest things about programs like FIRST is that they draw the interest of the kids who aren’t naturally drawn to STEM.
MIT hosts high school kids interested in science and technology each summer, where they take college-level classes for six weeks. They have a special program, adorably called “You GO! Girl,” which is a four-day program designed for girls about to enter 9th grade to give them an introductory view of science and engineering that includes some hands-on experience.
Not only are these programs targeting girls and other underrepresented groups but they’re also targeting kids at a younger age.
FIRST initially started as a robotics competition for high-school students, but now they have four levels of competition, starting with the Junior FIRST Lego League, for kids ages 6 to 9.
“I think, if you wait until high school to get kids interested in science and technology, you’ve waited too long,” Coffey said.
The FIRST Lego competitions for the younger kids lets them create robots and solve real-world problems using materials that are familiar to them – brightly colored Legos.
“This is a really fun way for them to realize I can invent things, I can solve problems,” said Michael McNally, director of brand relations for Lego. “You take Legos, which they’re familiar with and then say, ‘Imagine this is a string of DNA.’”
Chip giant Intel has several programs aimed at fostering innovation by kids, including the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Among the recent winners were a young woman who proposed using the gravitational pull of the planets as a “power slingshot” for commercial space travel, and a 15-year-old girl who came up with a cutting-edge cancer treatment: to use light shining through the skin to activate cancer drugs. They also sponsor after-school programs and programs for elementary-school teachers.
“Little kids come into kindergarten, fascinated with how the world works. But the longer they spend in school, sadly, the less interested and excited they are about science, technology, engineering and math,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation. “We realized we needed to get more involved in those kids' lives much sooner to get them interested and doing science. We sponsor the two competitions because the best way to hook kids on science is to get away from how it is traditionally taught.”
Technical colleges like MIT also run programs to help foster the innovators of tomorrow.
MIT gives out $10,000 in grants to high school students who identify problems and develop a prototype of an invention to solve it. They also participate in the FIRST competitions and work with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4H.
Among the inventions to come out of that are an electrical cord that lights up, so when your cords get tangled and you need to unplug one, you can identify where it came from and where it goes. Another was a watermelon ripeness evaluator, which would evaluate the sound when you thump the watermelon to determine the decay rate and sugar content in the melon.
Every summer, Lemelson MIT holds a Eurekafest, where they invite kid and adult inventors as well as teachers to celebrate their inventions.
Like the companies that sponsor such events, Schuler said MIT doesn’t put on these programs for recruiting purposes, though many of the students do go on to study at MIT. Rather, he says, “It’s a recruiting tool for high school students to consider science, technology, engineering and math fields and to be creative in their lives.”
The programs are aimed at encouraging kids who are naturals at exploring science and technology, but also reaching out to girls and other groups who tend to be underrepresented in the fields. It seems to be working: MIT said last year 46 percent of undergraduates were women.
Kids spend much of their formative years being told what they can’t do (Stop touching that!) but Kamen and the scores of volunteers and companies that sponsor programs like this are focused on teaching kids what they can do.
“Science has opened up another dimension to them,” Leslie Frazier, the assistant principal of CS 21, said while watching her school’s team compete in the FIRST Junior Lego League competition in New York. “They think: I can do this … It shows them the possibilities and stretches their minds.”
The Inventioneers, for example, are a group of six teens from LondonBerry, N.H., who won FIRST Robotics’ “FIRST Lego League” competition (for ages 9 to 14) several years in a row and went on to invent a device to help curb distracted driving called the “Smart Wheel,” which can tell when you’ve taken one or both hands off the wheel. This year, they’ll be competing in the First Robotics competition for high school students.
“First has given us an opportunity to see an idea through to the end,” said Tristan “T.J.” Evarts, a 15-year-old member of the Inventioneers. “Before, you would come up with an idea but have no idea what to do next. This has shown me how you can make an idea a reality.”
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