Building creativity in state high schools
A robot, named Nighthawk, whizzed around my conference room in the State Capitol last week. The machine spun on its four wheels while flashing its bright lights and stopping on a dime at my feet. It chased a ball around the room, tossing it and fetching it, even catapulting it to me from across the room. It entertained all of the adults in the room, including leaders from across this State. But they were not the ones who built Nighthawk. This robot was designed and built by a group of Arkansas high school students.
The robot and students from Mountain Home High School are participants in a robotics competition developed by the FIRST organization. FIRST, an acronym meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded by an inventor who wanted to interest young people in science, technology, engineering and math. FIRST challenges American students from all over the nation to compete using creativity and engineering. In six weeks, student teams design and build remotely-controlled robots, with the help of a few volunteers and mentors. Their devices are judged not only on the robot’s performance, but also on the team’s collaboration and determination.
For two decades now, this approach has produced tremendous educational results. Ninety percent of FIRST participants go on to pursue collegiate studies in STEM-related fields. Our young people often gravitate away from math-related subjects, often due to intimidation or disinterest. The best way to change that is to show them the opportunities, and even the fun, that math, science and engineering can create. By making these subjects exciting, FIRST captures a student’s natural curiosity that leads to discovery.
We know that by the time we reach 2020, approximately three-fourths of new jobs created in Arkansas will be STEM-related. These knowledge-based jobs pay well, and there’s great demand for professionals qualified to fill positions. If Arkansas builds a workforce to meet that demand, we can expect to see new businesses locate here and help increase jobs and wages.
Consider the students from Mountain Home High School. Year after year, their school has fielded a team for the FIRST competition. Backed by a local sponsor, Baxter International, the team has improved through the years to reach a world championship level. Many team members have gone on to study STEM subjects in college. Just as importantly, they have then returned to Mountain Home to work in those same fields.
That’s one of the best results we can achieve through this program. And I am very proud to say that the FIRST organization is hosting a regional robotics competition in Little Rock this coming March. Students from 60 state and regional teams will participate in the Arkansas Rock City Regional. This will be a premier STEM-education event, and we are excited to be hosting it in Central Arkansas. Our State is serious about preparing for success in the 21st century, and this competition is part of that preparation. But while the goal is serious, that doesn’t mean that reaching it can’t also be great fun.