Including STEM in your educational curriculum is all the rage. Countries around the world are banking on the idea that providing strong STEM programs for their children today create the possibility for stronger national economies tomorrow. They are putting all their eggs in the STEM basket, so to speak.
In the United States, parents are increasingly disillusioned with the education system. A system that seems to be failing our children. Although we are in an excellent school system and our experience with public school has been extremely positive, many parents have abandoned the public education system for private schools, or even homeschool. In fact, in the last 10 years, the number of homeshooled children has increased by nearly 62%. Parents are resigning themselves to the fact that it is up to them provide a more solid education than the one currently offered in our public schools.
Enter Robotics. Robotics may just be the Great White Hope that these disillusioned parents are looking for. I recently attended the VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky. My son, a fifth grader at Northern Elementary School in Georgetown, Kentucky, joined a robotics team for the first time this year. His team is comprised of 12 students, all first-year robot handlers. Their year has been a phenomenal one, surprising us all when they qualified for state championship, and then blowing us away when they were invited to the world championship.
At first, I thought robotics would be a fun diversion for him. A bit of building, a bit of coding, a little teamwork, but it’s become more than that. Of course the building and coding is there, which is super, but the collaboration it takes to get your robot to do what you want it to do is the real draw for me.
VEX Robotics is all about STEM. There’s no denying that the kids are learning about technology and engineering through the building and programming required to get your robot to compete. But far beyond that, VEX is about innovation and teamwork, skills that are nearly impossible to “teach” in a classroom.
At the world championship competition, the VEX IQ Teamwork Challenge emphasizes the collaboration between two teams, who have never met before, working to achieve the highest possible combined score. Their final score is based on what the two teams can accomplish together in one minute. When it works right, it’s almost like watching a beautiful dance. Not because the robots are really something to behold, but because 10-year old children are problem-solving and collaborating. Amazing.
The competition was a 3-day long event for the elementary students (middle school and high school students competed in their own events as well), full of as much pomp-and-circumstance as you can imagine. Over 10,000 children attended from all 50 states, plus 40 countries around the world. In addition to the robotics matches, the event included a very elaborate parade of nations, and a finals competition that rivaled some of the best rock concerts I’ve ever been to. There was music and lasers and even fire and confetti. There were sports announcers and instant replays of the matches. The place was electric. The kids were excited – dancing and cheering – intense expectation on their faces. It was cool. And that’s the vibe that the VEX Corporation was going for. Their rationale is that you make science super-cool and exciting while a kid is still young enough and impressionable enough to do so. Catch them way before other kids “teach” them that science is for nerds. In the middle of the celebration, my son turned to me to say that he wanted to continue his robotics career next year when he enters middle school. I’m thrilled.
The VEX Corporation is also very intent on empowering girls and under-represented groups. They know that the field of science has traditionally been dominated by males, and that domination has robbed the world of the perspectives, education, and experiences of half the population. They desperately want to draw attention to and correct that disparity. They want to position robotics as a pathway to bring about equality, and thus to prepare our future leaders to accomplish great things.
I found an inspiring example of this inclusivity at the competition. A team from Ethiopia was stationed across the aisle from our team. Ethiopia – definitely in the category of an under-represented group. Their coach, Senakriem Mekonnen, told me that he brings his team each year. I have made the trip from Addis to the United States and it’s a grueling one. Senakriem has made it with his students 10 times, because he understands how important it is to keep the kids passionate about STEM. He wants them to make a difference in their home country, and to make a positive impact in the world. This is exactly what VEX is going for. Since their inception, the VEX Corporation has touched more than 1,000,000 students worldwide, and their impact continues to grow and flourish each year. That is a legacy to be proud of.