Innovation through FIRST: How Robots Provide Hope for STEM Education
By Guest Blogger, SEPP Undergraduate Contest Winner: Alexandria Murphy
It’s no secret that the future of this country depends heavily on our ability to stay ahead in science and technology. Despite this knowledge, our youth lags behind many other countries such as India and China in science and math education. The problem is often blamed on lack of interest in children and teenagers in STEM careers, but a study done by ASQ offers a different perspective; it’s not a lack of interest, but a lack of faith in ability when it comes to science and math that has the incoming generation wary of STEM jobs. Another study done by Lemelson MIT Index, which surveys young adults aged 16-25 years old, asks the common questions concerning youth and their thoughts on science jobs and education. 34% stated they “don’t know much about these fields” while a third stated that they believed tech jobs to be “too challenging.” However, 47% knew that a “lack of innovation would hurt the US economy.” Evidently, young adults understand the importance of involvement in STEM careers, so the problem cannot just be blamed on lack of interest. This means the issue arises of how to change the confidence and amount of knowledge youth has with science, technology and math.
Years ago I found myself in this same situation. My father is an engineer and raised me on Bill Nye the Science Guy, so I always knew how cool science is. Despite this, I always had doubts about my own intelligence and ability to perform as an engineer or scientist when I grew up. It wasn’t until I became involved in an organization called FIRST that I realized a STEM career was far from impossible to for me to achieve.
FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an organization that engages children from first grade to high school in a very simple, very cool thing: robots. Each year, they host a game challenge and a competition that encourages teams from schools and communities to discuss, design, build, and test their own robot. Actual engineers and scientists lead in assisting the project from, conception to build. They offer a crucial aspect of a real world situation to the team. My teammates and I were taught and nurtured by our mentors and given hands on experience in all aspects of the robot, including mechanical, electrical, programming, design, and animation. Not only did we have a strict deadline to finish and ship our robot, but also the robots we created had a large handbook of requirements that they needed to satisfy lest they be disqualified from the competition. All of this gave us the opportunity to learn and display our skills in a way that was severely lacking in our standard classroom settings. I can attest that this program and programs like it solve the problems our current administration faces, such as peaking youth interest and giving them the confidence, experience, and education necessary to succeed in STEM careers.
Programs like FIRST are successful because the people involved care immensely about our children’s role in the coming future, and understand the importance of involving youth in science and technology programs. Their message is simple:
"To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders." (Dean Kamen, Founder)
The magic of this organization is not just that it makes engineering understandable, it’s that it makes engineering cool. The competitions are treated with the passion and dedication of a sports team, with the mentors as coaches and the mechanical shop as a weight room. To top it all off, the competition itself had referees, uniforms, fans, and sponsors. Finally, FIRST made science and technology something tangible, exciting, and basically, fun! If our national administration really wants to solve the problem of America’s future STEM careers, then they need to take a leaf out of FIRST’s book and use it as a model for educational programs and include it in the national talk concerning science and technology education, leadership, and innovation.