Building interest in science, a brick at a time

Sunday, January 8, 2006

TROY, N.Y. -- The crowd whoops and claps. Referees in striped shirts watch over young robot-makers who anxiously track their Lego creations zipping and turning on tabletops.

Teams of 9- though 14-year-olds with monikers like the Rambots and the Seymour Cyberteks have entered their robots in a regional "FIRST Lego League" competition held at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

This is a science lesson crossed with a sports competition.

For the kids, the contest offers fun and a shot at glory.

For organizers, the stakes are higher.

They want to kick-start interest in science and engineering among kids -- a subject that is lately preoccupying American business and academic leaders. The fear is that a dearth of new science students will erode the nation's competitive advantages as the 21st century progresses. Some educators have responded by adding a little sizzle -- going beyond books and lectures to teach concepts through cartoons, videos and competitions like the long-running FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology) series that made a recent stop at RPI.

"The goal is to create in the culture passion among kids to do something," said FIRST founder Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the scooter-like Segway. "I think the trouble is our culture does create a passion for kids, but their passion is related to one of two industries: entertainment or sports."

There's widespread fear that too few kids are interested in science these days and that the pipeline producing the next generation of American scientists is dribbling.

The influential National Academies sounded the alarm this fall with a congressionally requested report that counted more than 600,000 engineers graduating from higher education institutions in China last year, compared to 350,000 in India and about 70,000 in the United States.

Doctorates in computer sciences, mathematics, physics and engineering are down over the past decade -- and more then half the recipients are not U.S. citizens, according to figures compiled by the National Science Foundation.

RPI President Shirley Jackson, a member of the panel that produced the National Academies' report, calls the gap between the nation's need for scientists and engineers and the supply the "quiet crisis." While such concerns are nothing new, Jackson said the situation has grown dire enough to attract more attention.

Reformers routinely focus on getting more kids interested in science, hoping to attack the problem at its roots. For instance, National Science Foundation grants go to things like a kid-friendly museum exhibit that encourages visitors to slam a pane of heat-tempered glass with a bowling ball and the math-infused animated show "Cyberchase" on PBS.

Kamen started FIRST robot competitions in 1992 with 28 teams in a school gym in New Hampshire. More than 1,100 teams are expected to compete this go-around. The Lego competition began in 1998 and now has 7,500 teams from 31 countries competing.

The wheeled Lego robots, made with programmable Lego Mindstorms, are typically the size of a brick and get points for completing a series of tasks arrayed around a tabletop, like knocking down flags.

The event is designed to get competitive juices flowing. An emcee revs up the crowd, action is displayed on a giant overhead screen and kids are asked questions in post-competition interviews like "How'd you feel about that round?"

The robots stall and ram into walls a lot. When machines miss their marks, the kids try over. Just like scientists. Bilal Turner, an eighth-grader on the North Albany Academy's S-Block team, spent time between heats fiddling with his team's robot to make it roll slower.

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