Friday, April 10, 2015

FIRST Robotics: Getting Our Future Workforce Interested in STEM

Matt Schroeder, Regional Economist

On March 13, 2015, West Valley City’s Maverik Center was filled with all the energy, excitement and fanfare you would expect at a major sporting event — blaring music, cheering and dancing fans. But instead of athletes and a ball, there were robots and pool noodles. This was the sixth annual FIRST Robotics competition for Utah and the surrounding region, where 53 teams of high school students from 11 states faced off in hopes of qualifying for a slot at the national championships in St. Louis.

It works like this: Each team gets six weeks to design and build a robot designed to complete a variety of tasks to earn points on the competition field. In this year’s competition, titled “Recycle Rush,” a school’s robot worked alongside, but against, two competing school robots to collect, move and stack recycle bins. For the first 15 seconds of each round the robots are programmed to run in autonomous mode and then a student operator takes over via remote control for the remaining 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Human team members can reduce the opposing school’s score by hurling pool noodles across the arena into the opponent’s work-zone. Now that’s fun!An economist may not be your typical onlooker at an event like this, but I was there to get a look at the training and future of Utah’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. I left thinking, “Man, I should have become an engineer. That was awesome!” It was impressive and you could tell the students had a lot of fun.

Not only do they have fun, but these young people get the full experience of working on an engineering project from start to finish. A problem is presented and they have to work together (with the guidance of volunteer mentors) to plan their strategy, create an initial design using sophisticated engineering software (mechanical, electrical, pneumatic, etc.), build prototypes (often doing much of the fabrication work in their own shops), integrate a control system, write code for autonomous operation (in C++, Java, etc.), test the design and functionality, make adjustments, build the final robot, and practice for the competition. In addition to the engineering side, the team must also do marketing and public relations to get sponsors and create team “swag” (mostly in the form of cool buttons) to pass out to fans at the competitions — and all this in just six weeks.

As an economist I was encouraged to see so many young people excited about learning these STEM skills and getting great experience employing them. STEM related occupations are among the fastest growing and best paying in Utah. But as we have seen in the news lately (Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune), there are growing concerns about the supply of workers trained and available to fill these types of jobs. Utah’s public and private sectors are partnering in many ways to address these concerns and the FIRST Robotics leagues and competitions are among the most exciting (the event was sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development).

Generating a pipeline of future STEM workers is not just about building capacity in training facilities, deepening teachers’ skills, or funding technical education programs. Before training can even happen, there has to be student interest. Occupational opportunity and high wages alone may not be enough to persuade a teenager on which career path they might choose; but, an awesome experience doing real engineering, programming and problem solving — while having fun and making friends — just might do it.

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