Teens Use Tech, But Can They Make It?

Gentech: Dan Dubno
Dan Dubno
Commentary: CBSNews.com's Digital Dan Dubno explores how teenagers can regain the innovation initiative in building America's high-tech tomorrow.

The national games were over after three days of fierce competition at the Georgia Dome. The best teams earned trophies. The rest — slightly more than 300 teams that made it to the finals — left knowing they could have done better.

Still, it was time to celebrate and they did: close to 20,000 teenagers, watching fireworks and eating hotdogs the City of Atlanta had arranged for them in Olympic Park.

They came with uniforms, cheerleaders and ferocious fans. Yet brawn, speed and physical prowess were hardly the measure of success at this unique sporting event. These games were played by robots and their ingenious teenage creators.

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Held in late April, the U.S. FIRST Robotics championship celebrated design, intellect, programming skill and teamwork. (FIRST is an acronym "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)

Five playing fields whirred and whizzed with autonomous robots whipping scores of Nerf balls into impossibly high targets at a furious pace. The competition was not all fun and games, though. In the pits and in the arena, these high school students mirrored the struggle to maintain America's leadership in innovation and technology. Beyond the Georgia Dome, it appears their generation may already be losing this battle.

It is well known that this country is short of scientists and engineers. What is more troubling is that the problem is likely to get worse. A recent report by the American Electronics Association concluded that "regrettably, the American K-12 system is failing to provide the math and science skills necessary for kids to compete in the 21st century workforce, and the U.S. higher education system cannot produce enough scientists and engineers to support the growth of the high-tech industry that is so crucial to economic prosperity."

Math and science scores for 12th graders continue to decline, with less than 20 percent of high school graduates showing proficiency in science.

A similar trend emerges when comparing U.S. students to their international counterparts. Our 12th graders score at the bottom in math, science and particularly in physics, ranking last among the 16 countries participating. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, American youth spend more time watching television than in school.

Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman of General Electric, described the problem this way: "If you want good manufacturing jobs, one thing you could do is graduate more engineers. We had more sports exercise majors graduate than electrical engineering grads last year."

The Association of American Universities, analyzed the international trend: "In South Korea, 38% of all undergraduates receive their degrees in natural science or engineering. In France, the figure is 47%, in China, 50%, and in Singapore 67%. In the United States, the corresponding figure is 15%."

Across the United States, there are competing educational priorities among educators of high school students, and faced with similar declines in math and literacy performance, not every educator's first priority is science.

Our teenagers face an uphill battle to compete on technological and scientific fields. The National Science Board found that the United States is a net importer of high-technology products. Its trade balance in high-technology manufactured goods shifted from $54 billion in 1990 to minus-$50 billion in 2001.

Are we too late to help America's teens reverse the sudden decline in scientific and technical leadership? Will today's high school students be able to maintain the technological edge that has provided America's extraordinary standard of living? Can they sustain the culture of innovation and scientific prowess that has given this nation the military and economic supremacy it has enjoyed for nearly a century?

Despite these dire reports and troubling trends, this problem seems fixable. For several years I have been mentoring a number of high school robotics teams, working with the FIRST organization. The program has managed to find a way to create young techno-whiz kids by linking mentors to teens. Today, more than 1,000 high schools around the world have robotics teams, and FIRST is just beginning to grow, particularly here in the United States.

Building robots is fun but it is hardly the end goal. Robots are just a fascinating focal point for learning science and engineering skills. Robots must be designed, fabricated, programmed, coordinated and collaborated upon. There is brilliant strategy involved in these team competitions, and students learn from mentors about tools, design programs, project management, and especially, gracious professionalism and cooperation.

Yet working with FIRST teams (and having been Principal for a Day for four years at two New York specialty science high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science) provided troubling insights as well.

In New York City schools, and in schools across the country, machine shops — metal and woodworking shops — have been removed, and precious tools and expertise have been denied to students. "We figured we'd put in computers, instead," one principal said.

Do students in America really need to use a lathe or a milling machine? Why make a chisel by hand if you can buy one in a store for $1.50? Soldering irons can burn you. Spot welders, you betcha. You can take an eye out with this thing or that. Protect our children from themselves!