Super Bowl of robotics makes STEM subjects exciting

Super Bowl of robotics makes STEM subjects exciting

(CNN)Forty-thousand fans were chanting, screaming and cheering on their teams. The enthusiastic spectators had painted faces, were donning costumes, and no one was actually sitting in their seats — all were standing to get a better look at the action happening in the pens.

No, I’m not describing a boxing match. I’m describing a robotics competition — rather THE robotics competition.

This April more than 18,000 bright young minds, ages 6 to 18, traveled to St. Louis to participate in the Ultimate Sport for the Mind, aka the FIRST Robotics Championship. The competitors had spent the past six weeks building their robots, putting their blood, sweat and tears into their machines.

“I spent hours … I got cuts and bruises,” says Tia Singh, a junior at Queens Vocational Tech and a member of the RoboTigers team. “I bled over this robot.”

Serial inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST, which stands “for inspiration and recognition of science and technology,” in 1989. His goal: to inspire young people to be excited about the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, referred to as STEM.

Only 16% of American high-school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, according to the U.S Department of Education. Factor in that the United States ranks 31st in math and 24th in science globally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and it’s enough for some to say the United States is in the midst of a STEM crisis.

Kamen thinks we need students to celebrate brilliant minds, and not just the talented artists and athletes.

“I would speculate that 100 years ago, some of the heroes of our culture were Thomas Edison and Wilbur and Orville Wright and Alexander Bell. And today, kids know hundreds of people from Hollywood and sports. And I don’t think they know, even in our totally technically driven economy, who makes this stuff, how it got here.

And that’s sad. It’s a missed opportunity for kids, and it’s going to be a missed opportunity for our country. We’ve got to create the next generation of innovators, or we will lose our leadership in the world in every category.”

Each year’s competition is focused on building a robot to complete a certain task. Past assignments include shooting basketballs into hoops and throwing Frisbees. This year’s project involved stacking storage tubs and then topping them off with a trash can.

Kamen says his greatest challenge is convincing all children, not just the brainiacs, that they’re capable of becoming amateur roboticists.

“I think there’s a perception that if you’re really smart you can do all this stuff,” Kamen says. “No. You can do this if you’re willing to work much harder than everybody else is willing to work.”

It’s not just a trophy that these students are after. There is a sea of scholarships available to the students via FIRST. According to the organization, roughly $22.25 million in scholarships are available from 190 scholarship providers, including Boston University, Northeastern and Raytheon, among others.

Kamen says he is sure many of the children involved with FIRST will go on to change the world.

“I think there’ll be some kid in 10 or 20 years, a young woman, that’s gonna be standing in front of somebody at CNN and being asked, ‘You just won the Nobel Prize in medicine. What made you do this?’ And that young, relatively young, nervous person will say, ‘Well, I don’t really know how I ended up in medicine, but I remember when I was a kid, I got involved with this program called ‘FIRST,’ and it gave me self-confidence. And it made me realize the power of science and technology, and I never looked back. And here I am today.'”

These competitors are smart, and driven, and inspired. It’s hard to imagine they will settle for anything else but changing the world.

Story by By Rachel Crane, CNN