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Guest Blog: Jon Dudas of FIRST®

January 26, 2012

This is a post in the STEMconnector™ guest blog series, featuring President of FIRST®, Jon Dudas

 

“There are a lot of sobering statistics in the news about STEM that underscore the urgent need to support STEM education activities for young people. As a follower of STEMconnector, I am sure you are aware of these stats. However, I’ll bet you are also passionate about advancing the issue of STEM education and inspiring youth to engage in STEM activities. I, too, am passionate about advancing this issue. I believe that, with support from a plethora of sources, young people will become the next great generation of STEM innovators. However, instead of listing these grim numbers, I’d rather share with you some positive stories regarding STEM.

 
STEM occupations are projected to grow to 17 percent by 2018, and STEM workers will command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

 

I see these predictions as an opportunity for encouraging more kids to explore STEM careers. Take, for example, a teenager named Kevin who went from curious bystander to STEM leader at Anderson High School in Texas after joining his school’s robotics programs:

 

“I began FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL®) as a club where the toy LEGO elements I used to play with so enthusiastically became exciting robots. FLL helped me reach the conclusion that I wanted to be an engineer. After progressing on to high school, I discovered the even more amazing FIRST® Tech Challenge! FIRST evolved my engineering ladder and has brought me to an entirely different world. I can now proudly and happily say that I am the president and leader of my robotics team.”

 

As the President of FIRST®, hearing testimonials like Kevin’s is what gets me excited and eager to head to work each day. I came to FIRST nearly two years ago after a five-year run as the Director of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, where I signed almost one million patents. The amount of content I see FIRST students producing is just as impressive; we have scores of inventions coming from these students, day in and day out.

 
One reason FIRST has garnered so much support is, as Kevin simply stated, it’s fun. It is no secret that children are creative thinkers and builders. Whether it’s playing with LEGO bricks, or making a fort in the backyard, kids love to design and build. Another reason is the increase of support from so many partners: with support from three out of every five Fortune 500 companies, all four FIRST robotics programs are able to help children as young as 6 years old participate in its family of hands-on robotics engineering programs. Even will.i.am, front man for The Black Eyed Peas, is volunteering his time to get kids engaged in FIRST.

“Celebrating in style at FIRST Championship in St. Louis --- FIRST students from California helped will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas build the robot he used to compete against FIRST founder Dean Kamen in a FIRST Tech Challenge match. The Grammy-award winning singer volunteers his time encouraging young people to get involved in FIRST.”

If we can bring these fun elements to afterschool robotics programs and gain more support for STEM, I am confident more students will want to become the next Thomas Edison. In fact, according to an independent study from Brandeis University, students who participated in the FIRST®Robotics Competition (FRC®) were nearly four times as likely to expect to pursue a career specifically in engineering, and more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology.
Indeed, the momentum to engage students in fun, exciting afterschool STEM projects is building nationwide. Nonprofits, corporations and the government are offering programs like Google Science contests, the White House Science Fair, and Connect a Million Minds™, a $100 million philanthropic STEM initiative from Time Warner Cable. This wealth of engagement and support is providing students with opportunities to learn about innovation and invention, and how to solve complex problems that benefit people and society, all of which help students develop a passion to pursue the growing number of STEM-related careers.

 
Now, more than ever, it is imperative that students pursue these careers. While we continue to dig out of this economic recession, this past year President Obama called for more Americans to become engineers, saying “Today, only 14 percent of all undergraduate students enroll in what we call the STEM subjects. We can do better than that. We must do better than that. If we’re going to make sure the good jobs of tomorrow stay in America.”

 
As these young innovators begin to map out their professional careers, it is our responsibility as educators and influencers to provide them the tools they need to flourish; the tools they need to help America flourish.”

 
Jon W. Dudas is president of FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit organization that inspires an appreciation of science and technology in young people. FIRST designs accessible, innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering. With support from three out of every five Fortune 500 companies and nearly $14 million in college scholarships, FIRST hosts four robotics programs for students ages 6 – 18 years of age and an annual FIRST Championship. For more information, visitwww.usfirst.org.

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