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How to hook young people on math and science? Robots.

May 31, 2015 at 11:30 AM EDT
In the United States, the number of college students pursuing degrees in math and science fields lags well behind dozens of industrialized countries. The numbers are even smaller for women and people of color. But one program is using robotics as a way to inspire interest young people while they're still in high school. NewsHour Special Correspondent Lynn Sherr reports.

LYNN SHERR: Science and SciFi have always attracted Freya Wilhelm, whose favorite TV show as a child was this animated series set in the fantastic future.

LYNN SHERR: But Freya’s life went off track her freshman year of high school, when, as a struggling art student in Manhattan, she descended into a cycle of marijuana, party drugs, psychedelics…

FREYA WILHELM: I was feeling very experimental.

LYNN SHERR: By her junior year, she had added cocaine.  And was failing out of school.

LYNN SHERR: What did you see as your future, at that point? Did you look at yourself and say, “What am I doing?

FREYA WILHELM: I kind of just thought maybe I would grow out of it or things would work itself out.

LYNN SHERR: Luckily, school officials transferred her to New York’s Lower East Side Prep, a second-chance school with experience turning around lost kids. One day, she was invited to join the robotics team, coached by Dr. Henry Ruan.

HENRY RUAN: I really saw the difference that made. When we started she was kinda shy and silent member of the team. I didn’t see her very often in the school. It’s not easy to have this kind of change. The person has to put a lot of commitment, a lot of determination, this program is playing some role in that change.

LYNN SHERR: This program challenges students to design, build and program robots for an international competition. It also hooks them on the wonders of — well, look at its name: FIRST, For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

LYNN SHERR: FIRST was created 26 years ago by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway among other high-tech devices.

DEAN KAMEN: I thought, if we could create a cultural shift that made tech cool to a generation of kids, we might start narrowing the gap between the number of scientists and engineers that we’re producing in this country on a percentage basis to other countries around the world.

LYNN SHERR: What, specifically, is the problem?

DEAN KAMEN: We have a smaller percentage of our kids becoming scientists and engineers than many countries in the developing world. And when you look at the data and see that China’s producing five or 600,000 engineers this year and we’ll produce one-tenth of that, it says, “How’re we gonna compete?”

LYNN SHERR: The gap is even greater when it comes to gender.  Women comprise only 13 percent of all professional engineers in the U.S., and only one-quarter of the computer and mathematical sciences workforce.

Getting girls (and boys) interested early is where this competition is a game-changer.

When I first met Kamen back in 1993, 20-some teams competed in a high school gymnasium in New Hampshire.

Today, youngsters from 41,000 schools in 80 countries do battle in venues like New York’s Javits Center, where we watched New York’s regional competition back in March.  And participants – particularly girls – report significantly more interest in science, tech and math fields.

LYNN SHERR: Kamen is their rock star. Freya also gets her moment, but as team captain, quickly turns to the competition. The goal is to load up the robot with the most boxes –and a garbage can.

LYNN SHERRThe first match goes badly, but as the team regroups, the real genius behind the program becomes clear.

DEAN KAMEN: Whether or not they built a good robot, I don’t care. What they built was a bit of self-confidence about what’s possible, a new perspective.

LYNN SHERR: For Freya, it all comes together in the final round.

FREYA WILHELM: Yes! We beat one of the really good teams!”

LYNN SHERR: Next year, Freya Wilhelm wants to go to college and study engineering, a childhood fantasy that finally seems possible.

LYNN SHERR: Fair to say that FIRST turned your life around?

FREYA WILHELM: Yes. Absolutely. I think it’s given me– a big 180 degree in my life.

LYNN SHERR: All because she took that FIRST step with Dean Kamen.

DEAN KAMEN: Stay with it!

FREYA WILHELM: I will, I will. Thank you so much. I’m so happy.

PBS NewsHour coverage education is supported by  American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.