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."
In 2002, the Aerospace Industries Association started the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), specifically because the aerospace engineering workforce is growing old, with nearly a quarter of such workers expected to retire within five years. In this year's competition, teams from around the country are being asked to build a rocket weighing about 1½ pounds that carry two raw eggs up to 800 feet and return them safely to Earth.
That specific challenge takes science off the chalkboard and puts it in a practical context. "We say they have to return an egg, but really, that egg is their astronaut," says Anne Ward, TARC's manager. "They're using the formulas for thrust, the formulas for propulsion, to solve a real-world problem."
Yes, it is rocket science, but it's also fun and a good team-building exercise, Ward says. About half of the 7,000 students who participate in the program had a prior interest in rocket science, while the others were "dragged there by their friends," she says. But after learning that yes, you can actually use this stuff again, kids become engaged. According to a survey by TARC, more than 95 percent of students who participate in the program go on to college and nine in 10 say they would encourage a friend to study STEM in college. So far, TARC alumni have gone on to work at Raytheon, Virgin Galactic, and other aerospace engineering companies.
The ability to involve women and minorities, groups that are severely underrepresented in STEM careers, is another factor in these competitions. Women make up just a quarter of the STEM workforce; only 5 percent of engineers are black and 6 percent are Latino. Irving Pressley McPhail, CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, says experts are "now beginning to zero in on the evidence for what works" for minorities and women in STEM—engaging, exciting content. Competitions fit that bill.
The FIRST team at the Foshay Learning Center, a majority-minority school in Los Angeles, has grown from seven students to more than 40 over the course of 12 years. Darryl Newhouse, a math teacher and mentor of the team, says he has students who come to school only for robotics. "A lot of these kids can't learn just by watching a teacher lecture. I wanted a way to excite them," he says. "I've had the counselor bring a kid who wasn't doing so well to my classroom and said, 'He wants to be in robotics.' He ended up being one of my team captains."
Because FIRST is a team-based competition, there's space for people who haven't always been interested in STEM. Jessica Rodriguez, student administrator of the Foshay team, says everyone starts off with a specific job suited to his or her interests, but the responsibilities quickly shift. Jazmin Navarro initially got involved as the team's public relations lead, taking pictures of the robots and helping out with press inquiries. While she still does that, she also got involved in designing and building the team's robot after realizing it wasn't something just for math geeks. "Just being in the machine shop changed everything," Navarro says. "I learned to use all the tools, and now I help out with different parts of the robot." Both Navarro and Rodriguez will go after degrees in STEM fields at the University of Southern California this fall.
For the first time, the Foshay team went to the FIRST National Championships in St. Louis. Even if the students don't win, says Walt Havenstein, chairman of the FIRST board, science competitions are among those contests where winning isn't everything. "This is the only sport I know where everyone can turn pro," he says.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.