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Robots to the Rescue

The Next Generation of Inventors Needs to Learn How to Tinker

US FIRST founder Dean Kamen with a group of high school students. SOURCE: How can you design the products of tomorrow and create the innovations that will keep the country advancing if you don't learn how to make anything? Robots can help. Above: US FIRST founder Dean Kamen with a group of high school students.

A report by the American Electronics Association concluded that, “regrettably, the American K-12 system is failing to provide the math and science skills necessary for kids to compete in the 21st century workforce.” It goes on to warn that “the U.S. higher education system cannot produce enough scientists and engineers to support the growth of the high-tech industry that is so crucial to economic prosperity.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, American youth spend more time watching television than they spend in school. Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of General Electric, once described the problem this way: “If you want good manufacturing jobs, one thing you could do is graduate more engineers. We had more sports exercise majors graduate than electrical engineering grads last year.” The number of American-born engineers continues to precipitously decline.

Fortunately, there are effective ways of getting high school students excited about technology and engineering early, and one of them will be on display in full force later this week in Atlanta, Georgia. The FIRST Robotics Championship will bring together thousands of teens from around the world to compete in a series of contests that emphasize ingenuity and teamwork. And these kids, many of who will go on to pursue engineering in college, will have a grand stage on the floor of the Georgia Dome.

The nations’ top scientists and educators reported in “Rising Above The Gathering Storm” that a host of countries were ferociously investing in scientific research and development and are catching up with the United States. This landmark report concludes:

For a century, many in the United States took for granted that most great inventions would be homegrown—such as electric power, the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane—and would be commercialized here as well. But we are less certain today who will create the next generation of innovations, or even what they will be. We know that we need a more secure Internet, more-efficient transportation, new cures for disease, and clean, affordable, and reliable sources of energy. But who will dream them up, who will get the jobs they create, and who will profit from them?

Well, it’s true: factories have moved to countries far away. Do students in America really need to know how to use a lathe or a milling machine? Why make a chisel by hand if you can buy one in a store for $1.50? Soldering irons can burn you. Spot welders, you betcha. You can take an eye out with this thing or that. Protect our children from themselves!

But what we’ve actually done is create an entire generation of young adults who don’t know how to weld, solder, fabricate, design, measure, create, tinker, or play. They don’t know what the inside of a radio looks like because it’s just cheaper to buy another imported one than to fix the old one. How can you design the products of tomorrow, create the innovations that will keep the country advancing, if you don’t learn how to make anything? I’m also suggesting that our litigious, liability-adverse nation has hobbled our children’s ability to learn how to innovate.

Central to the “American Idea” is our burning desire to innovate. Yet America no longer knows how to celebrate inventors or give “invention licenses” to the new crop of teenagers coming up. But instead of preserving the old economy, we must prepare our kids to lead this new economy. The solution is not to wall ourselves off but to insure that our teens have the tools, the training, to be the innovators to make and sell the new stuff to these new markets.

For several years I mentored high school robotics teams, working with the FIRST organization. In fact, the brilliant and relentless inventor Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, talked me into it (like he has with literally thousands of volunteers.) Happily, I then talked my family and friends into mentoring teams as well, and my converts have been far more successful than I have been in guiding kids to build robots. A few weeks ago, at New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, dozens of high schools competed with a field of ball-gathering and ball-tossing robots…and the competition captivated thousands of students in attendance. Today, more than a thousand high schools around the world have robotics teams, and FIRST continues to grow.

Building robots is fun but it is hardly the point. Robots are just a fascinating focal point for learning science and engineering skills: robots must be designed, fabricated, programmed, coordinated, and collaborated upon. There is brilliant strategy involved in these team competitions, and students learn from mentors about tools, design programs, project management, and especially, gracious professionalism and cooperation.

Yet working with FIRST teams has given me some troubling insights as well. In New York City schools, and in schools across the country, machine shops, metal and wood-working shops, continue to disappear. Precious tools and expertise are still denied to students. “We figured we’d put in computers, instead,” one principal told me.

Scared of lawsuits and liability, many educators contend that manufacturing skills are no longer needed. In one school I worked with, an enormous milling machine was actually stolen and not reported missing for about three years. Five years later, it still has not been replaced.

I don’t think “doom and gloom” is an accurate prediction of the future of American technology: optimism is at the soul of American innovation. Nearly a dozen successful television shows that cater to the “How It’s Made” crowd signal a resurgence of public interest in science and technology. President Obama is significantly reinvesting in basic science research and plans to rejuvenate our frail technology infrastructure. Unleashing the power of America’s research and development potential has increasingly become a popular and unifying cause in Congress and even in some corporate boardrooms.

Despite tough economic times and cutbacks, Google still seems committed to stimulate innovation by allowing select employees to devote 20 percent of their work time to undirected research. Many at Google believe this freedom to explore directly results in the most exciting and profitable innovation emerging from their Mountain View campus. Beyond Google, American corporations need to figure out how to replicate this excitement and openness in stimulating creativity.

Risky? Sure. There is no reward without risk and innovation abhors complacency. But we have become worse than complacent: we have removed springboards for our next generation of engineers, chemists, and inventors to jump into the game and lead America and the world.

So here are some ideas that may ensure our teens will be the innovators of tomorrow:

  • Grow talent: have your high-tech company mentor a FIRST Robotics team, for example.
  • Reward innovation: As a nation we must celebrate inventors.
  • Inspire innovation with challenges (like the DARPA Grand Challenge) and access to technology.
  • Keep America a friendly place for foreign scientists and researchers to study and innovate so they’ll stay and grow our innovative infrastructure.
  • Give innovators more time to play and focus on their own quests (i.e., the Google model).

Like it or not, welcome to the new environment: adapt or die. Technology is cycling so quickly, expertise will be redefined: not by what you know but how fast you think; how quickly you can process data; to find broad connections then turn it into something that you can market the hell out of. Learning how to build a robot with your classmates is a solid head start.

Dan Dubno is an Emmy-award winning TV producer, broadcaster, technologist, presenter, inventor, and “connector.” He is founder of Blowing Things Up (BTU) LLC., an international consultancy that brings innovative technology companies together to reach new markets and applications.

A version of this column originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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