A Sport for the Mind

What if we honored students’ STEM accomplishments with school-wide pep rallies, bulging trophy cases, and varsity letters?

GUEST COLUMN | by Don Bossi

CREDIT FIRST int nonprofitImagine walking down the hallway of your school past the science labs to see the latest trophies and medals honoring student athletes. Yet, none of these shiny accolades are for scoring state football or soccer championships. Rather, they are trophies awarded to students for creative problem-solving capabilities during hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) challenges. Such a scenario is within our grasp.

In school districts nationwide, important discussions are happening about how to increase access to hands-on learning opportunities and engage more students in STEM studies and careers. To help accelerate those conversations, let’s put aside traditional thinking about solving this challenge – such as teacher workshops or applying common core standards – and explore an unconventional approach: a sport for the mind.

In school districts nationwide, important discussions are happening about how to increase access to hands-on learning opportunities and engage more students in STEM studies and careers. 

What if we honored students’ accomplishments in STEM-focused afterschool programs and celebrated their victories with schoolwide pep rallies, bulging trophy cases, and varsity sport letters? Would this help engage more students in STEM?

Before we answer these questions, let’s look deeper into the issue. Our challenge results from a shortage of students proactively (and productively) engaging in STEM studies, and, of those who do, sustaining their interest into pursuing STEM careers. This reality is a major obstacle to the United States’ struggle to retain its leadership in innovation and economic growth.

Let’s look at the numbers. STEM occupations are growing 1.7 times faster than non-STEM careers, according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, yet the U.S. workforce doesn’t have enough skilled workers to keep up with this growth. Moreover, students in U.S. classrooms rank 23rd in science and 31st in math when compared to students in 65 top industrial countries, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.

A STEM Solution

To reverse these statistics, school districts in Connecticut, Minnesota and Texas are trying an unconventional approach: sanctioning robotics teams as an official afterschool activity that receives the same support as traditional sports teams. Benefits include extracurricular program structures; the active support of school executives, teachers and community leaders; and the opportunity to apply for varsity sport letters for high performance.

And so far, it’s working.

When the state of Texas deemed afterschool robotics programs as an official extracurricular activity through its state activities association, the floodgates for access to project-based STEM opportunities immediately opened to millions of students from thousands of middle and high schools statewide.

Now in Texas, school superintendents and principals can allocate district funds to robotics teams. These teams can also apply for grant money supported by a variety of organizations and corporations, including the Texas Workforce Commission.

Students learn the rigors of STEM academics in these afterschool robotics programs by building and programming robots and competing against other teams in timed matches that offer the nail-biting excitement of a sporting competition. The skills students can learn in robotics engineering challenges, including teamwork, collaboration and creative problem solving, are the same as those learned in other sports. But unlike most sports, robotics provides all students – no matter their background or physical ability – the opportunity to go “pro” by becoming a STEM professional.

It’s Official

This initiative is a game changer for creating widespread accessibility and adoption of student robotics programs, as Texas is being hailed as a national model for other states to follow.

“Robotics now has the opportunity to be on the same playing field as football,” said Ray Almgren, a vice president at National Instruments based in Texas. “Not only will this program provide millions of students with access to robotics, it will offer exciting, hands-on opportunities for them to solve problems just like engineers do in our workforce.”

To engage more students in STEM education, we need to expand access to STEM by embracing robotics engineering as an official sport for the mind. Let’s make STEM education as thrilling as competing in a school sports tournament. Teachers can ignite classroom theory into practice on the robotics playing field with exciting, problem-solving activities that receive the same schoolwide support as traditional sports teams. Once this happens, I am confident that STEM learning and victories will be hailed on the same stage as a state football championship, complete with a hall of fame recognition at your school.

Don Bossi is president of FIRST, a Manchester, NH-based international, K-12 not-for-profit organization founded to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Don started as an MIT research scientist excelling over a 20-year high-tech career with several companies; he is now focused on giving back to the STEM community developing next-gen innovators through his work at FIRST. Learn how you can advocate for robotics to become an officially recognized sport in your state. Visit: http://www.firstinspires.org/elevating-robotics.

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