On February 7, in a time-honored tradition, President Obama invited national championship teams to the White House. It was just two days after the Super Bowl, but the president wasn't welcoming the New York Giants, he was welcoming dozens of students who had won competitions in high school science labs. "If we are recognizing athletic achievement, then we should also be recognizing academic achievement and science achievement," Obama told the students. "If we invite the team that wins the Super Bowl to the White House, then we need to invite some science fair winners to the White House as well."
In a country that has often had to look overseas to fill science and engineering vacancies, the health of science and math education is increasingly important. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year-olds rank 17th in science and 25th in math among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, behind countries such as Slovenia, Poland, and South Korea.
That's becoming a problem for the United States in a world that is growing more reliant on technology. Despite the U.S. unemployment crisis, there are plenty of jobs for those with the right skills. Last May, for example, Microsoft said it had more than 4,500 jobs open, but not enough people to fill them. And company officials say the situation isn't getting any better. It takes, on average, two months for the firm to fill a position. Tech companies have been begging Congress to open the borders to skilled foreign workers, leading some to say America should "staple a green card" to the diplomas of foreign students who study science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) at an American university.
But the United States needs to grow its own talent, too. Politicians and education experts have tried to address the problem in various ways—the College Board has redesigned its Advanced Placement science curricula, Obama wants to hire 100,000 new science and math teachers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to pay those teachers $100,000 each, and high schools in New York and Chicago are keeping students two extra years to teach them job skills (in return, the students get a high school diploma and an associate's degree at the same time).
While all those plans may help, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, has a simpler idea: Turn science into a sport.
Kamen started the FIRST Robotics Competition in 1992, and since then, nearly 300,000 participating students have designed their own robots. The top teams from this year's competition are met last weekend in St. Louis, where their robots, designed and programmed over a six-week period, will compete to determine which can best kick a soccer ball, put a basketball in a hoop, or perform any number of other tasks. More than 30,000 participants, teachers, families, and fans showed up. For Kamen, it's easy: You get what you celebrate. "We make heroes and role models out of people from Hollywood and the NBA and NFL, but there aren't that many jobs in the NBA and the NFL," he says. "Sports and entertainment don't drive the economy, they don't create the wealth, they don't create a sense of security and standard of living that this country seems to be taking for granted."
The students who compete in FIRST might one day drive the economy, though. According to a Brandeis University study, students who competed in FIRST during high school were about 10 times as likely as other students of similar backgrounds to have an internship during their freshman year of college, four times as likely to expect to pursue a career in engineering, and more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science or technology.
FIRST isn't the only organization offering a competition. Among others are the Intel Science Talent Search, the Siemens Competition, the Department of Energy's National Science Bowl, and contests for video game design, rocket building, innovation, chemistry, and experiment design.
Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur who founded the X Prize, which awarded $10 million to the first commercial team to send a reusable passenger craft into space, says that "we are genetically bred as humans to compete."
"I've seen how ideas can materialize and change the world, and that's addicting," he says. Science competitions give high schoolers "the notion that ideas have power. … It's teaching people to not be afraid to dream, to not be afraid to have an idea."