Column: Young robot makers offer hope for America’s tech futureI recently happened upon high school students in heated competition at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The DECC was filled with hundreds of cheering fans, teams in uniforms, colorful mascots and an excitable PA guy.
I recently happened upon high school students in heated competition at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The DECC was filled with hundreds of cheering fans, teams in uniforms, colorful mascots and an excitable PA guy.
No, this wasn’t a hockey playoff game, it was the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition, and the students were crowded into the Arena, Paulucci Hall and Edmund Fitzgerald Exhibit Hall.
The event involved way more competitors (3,000) than any single high school sports event and, if we’re lucky, will have a lot more impact on the students’ later lives — and on America’s economic competitiveness. The key word here is STEM.
That stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and America needs all the people it can get who are trained in those fields. The U.S. has high unemployment, but has had to import some people to fill these technical jobs.
I wrote last summer about attending the graduate school commencement at Iowa State University and all the foreign students, mostly Asian, getting doctorates in the STEM fields.
High school hockey and other sports can teach lessons that will serve athletes well for the rest of their lives. But those trained in STEM disciplines can be better served by secure jobs for the rest of their lives.
Not all the 3,000 students on the 99 teams from Minnesota and surrounding states will end up in technical fields, but a disproportionately large number likely will.
It’s well known that American high school students finish in the middle of the pack among the world’s students on many standardized tests, and closer to the bottom on a few.
We’re lucky that America’s colleges draw overseas students and many opt to stay here after graduation. But China, which contributes a big share of graduates in STEM fields, is increasingly trying to persuade them to return to their homeland and its growing economy.
America has reduced its dependence on imported oil. In the long run it will be even more important to reduce our dependence on foreign students for the technical jobs that will dominate our 21st-century economy.
The students I saw controlling robots that moved swiftly across the Arena floor and sent Frisbee-like discs flying onto a relatively narrow opening likely weren’t thinking about America’s STEM shortage; they were trying to beat competitors from schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan and Illinois.
But the skills they learned in building mechanical marvels will serve well those who enter STEM studies — and likely persuade more than a few to do just that.
Robotics competitions, which began just a few years ago but have multiplied like crazy across America, are an example of our public schools doing something important and doing it well.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.