Regular readers of this space know that in my opinion automation is upsetting labor markets more than globalization and that this makes STEM education critical.  Even in my supposedly intellectual town, I frequently hear anecdotes of parents and students at the public schools valuing athletics more than STEM education.  People are surprised that many young people struggle to find jobs that can support that an affluent lifestyle.  Some people say fatalistically that jobs disappear during recessions but don’t come back during the expansion periods.  I actually agree with that but not in the fatalistic way.  More and more the world looks like a science fiction dream in which robots can handle the repetitive work leaving humans to focus on art, science, and maintaining the robots.  You can’t make a living in such a world doing things that can be automated.

 

Sometimes I start to despair, though, when I hear about parents spending large amounts of time and money on their kids’ hockey and say casually they’re not setting aside any money for their kids’ college.  Don’t they see where this leads?  Why doesn’t someone set up competitive events that are focused on skills that will help kids be productive in the modern economy?

 

2011-Badgerland-Tournament-250x250.jpgLast week I got to see first hand that someone already has.  Two friends independently told me, probably when I was bordering on ranting to them on this issue, that there is a robotics league called FIRST and that our community has a local chapter called BadgerBots.  Last week my colleague and I who are on the board our local IEEE Section went to visit them to see if it was something we might want to sponsor.  BadgerBots’ building has a few thousand feet of space with a shop for building the robots, and area to test them, a large meeting area, and a few conference rooms.  When I walked in the building last week, I came across a colleague who I had met with earlier in the day without knowing he was going to volunteer at BadgerBots that night.  While we talked, a 17-year-old with poise beyond her years interrupted us politely and asked if I was the Treasurer of the local IEEE section.  She said she really wanted to talk to me and the other IEEE board members.  We went to a conference room where she and two high-school freshmen chatted with us briefly before getting down to business.  They explained they have a lego program for young kids, two robotics programs for high-school students, and a program to do presentations at all the local high schools.  The presentation program teaches some fun aspects of robotics and also recruits people for the lego and robotics programs.  Participation costs around $1000 per year, consistent with many competitive sports teams.  The students enthusiastically promote it and work through parents’ sticker shock, but explained they could use money for scholarships for families with real need

 

A teacher was present for part of the presentation.  He encouraged the students to explain how they invented some technology in the program and licensed it to a large company.  When the students met with the company at first the company thought they were cute kids, but once they realized the kids had patented a technology the company could use, the tenor of their meeting switched to a negotiation.  They worked out an agreement for generous licensing fees, all payable as charitable contributions to the BadgerBots 501(c)(3).

 

Most of the time I was there, the colleague I who had met there by chance was in the lab teaching the students the nuts and bolts of microcontrollers

 

The thing that stands out most is the students’ ability to ask for money with no sense of entitlement and no sense of asking for charity but rather to explain how awesome what they were doing was and how they’d like even more people to benefit from it.  It came off better than some pitches I have heard by companies seeking VC funding.  Not all the students who participate are techies.  Some are interested in business and know that the future of business is in technology.  Some are interested in art and see playing with robots as an avocation just as someone in technology might play an instrument in school.

 

I have never visited a BlueStamp Engineering event, but I imagine it’s similar.  There are probably many organizations doing this work but getting less attention than high school sports.  For some reason it didn't hit me why people would want to volunteer with young students until I went there and saw them changing the world as surely as new inventions change the world.

 

I keep hearing the US presidential candidates work “jobs” into everything they possibly can.  This is unfortunate because politicians don’t create jobs, so they’re talking about something outside of their powers as politicians.  People who get grade school students excited about STEM actually are creating jobs.