By Tom Purcell
It’s a compelling event — something we all better hope we see more of, if America is to thrive.
I speak of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competitions, which will be taking place at various cities across Canada and the U.S. through the first week in April.
Teams of high school kids spend months designing and building computerized robots. They raise money and manage budgets. Then their robots go head-to-head in a rollicking contest.
In the process, the kids become so excited about science, math and engineering, many go on to study these subjects in college.
Which is precisely what America needs.
A chief reason why America has enjoyed massive growth and prosperity is the innovation and productivity made possible by our scientists, engineers and inventors.
We became prosperous by creating faster, better, cheaper ways to make high-quality products. We led the world in innovation for many years.
But, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, we’re beginning to fall behind.
- In 2009, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
- China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 high-technology exporter and is second in publication of biomedical research articles.
- Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the United States. In a corresponding period 10 years later, just 74 were approved.
- Almost one-third of U.S. manufacturing companies responding to a recent survey reported some level of skills shortage.
- According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 48th in quality of math and science education.
We’ve surely got our work cut out for us.
Science, math and engineering are difficult to master in college — they cut into party time, and many students avoid them.
Besides, why study such challenging subjects when you can stumble through a second-rate law school, then collect 30-percent commissions by suing companies that actually produce stuff?
Our kids need to be motivated to become scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Which brings us back to the FIRST event.
FIRST is a nonprofit founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen — the type of fellow America better start producing more of. FIRST’s vision is 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.”
FIRST is succeeding.
This year, nearly 250,000 high school students — including students in Madera — will participate in FIRST Robotics Competition, Tech Challenge and LEGO League events.
The robotics contests alone are producing results.
An independent study by Brandeis University’s Center for Youth and Communities found kids who participate are three times as likely to major in engineering — and twice as likely to expect to pursue careers in science and technology.
These kids need our support.
FIRST is always looking for volunteers, mentors and donations.
And the robotics contests are an absolute blast to watch. The more who attend, the more inspired these kids will be.
Attending would be one small step for you, one giant leap for America’s future.
(District and regional competitions are now running across the U.S. and Canada through April 6. To find an event near you, visit www.usfirst.org). The Madera robotics competition is this weekend. For a complete schedule of events, see Wednesday’s Madera Tribune.
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Tom Purcell is author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!” and is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist nationally syndicated by Cagle Cartoons Inc.