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Science's Vital Role In America's Future

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In 1969, when America achieved what was once thought to be a technological impossibility by landing a man on the moon, the average age of a NASA engineer was 26. That means that in 1961, when President Kennedy inspired the nation with the challenge of lunar exploration, those same engineers were just graduating from high school. They watched as their President declared that scientific advancement was a national imperative and embarked upon a path that would lead mankind beyond the heavens.

In January, President Obama stood before Congress and once again stressed the importance of science and technology to American competitiveness and success. Times, however, have certainly changed. The average age of an engineer at NASA and elsewhere is up past 50 -- on par with the national average. The United States now ranks 17th in science and 24th in math out of 65 developed countries. If America is to win the future, and answer the President's call to meet the challenges and opportunities of the next century, then the next generation must once again experience the magic and inspiration of technological triumph.

Two decades ago, I founded FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program that encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology through robotics competitions. At that time, not many people believed that we could combine science education with the excitement of competitive sports. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and ... robots? Many thought it was impossible. However, 20 years after our first Championship in a high school gym in Manchester, New Hampshire, FIRST has grown into an international phenomenon. Tens of thousands will participate this year. Hundreds of thousands are alumni who currently fill the ranks of some of the best technology and engineering corporations, or have gone on to create their own innovative businesses.

FIRST continues to grow, and continues to inspire.

Four Presidents of the United States, dozens of senators and congressmen, and scores of local officials and community leaders have recognized the transformative power of our program. FIRST Robotics Competition participants are three times as likely as their peers to study engineering in college. They are also more likely to secure internships, to pursue careers in technology, and, after being inspired not only by the wonders of science but by the commitment of our incredible Mentors and Volunteers, to volunteer in their communities.

Our female and minority participants, two groups largely underrepresented in the engineering profession, also demonstrate a strong desire to pursue math and science for their studies and careers. FIRST works, and in our modern world, with America slipping behind in the vital areas of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, these results are more important than ever before.

Despite the great advancements FIRST has made, and the countless lives it has transformed, much work needs to be done if our program is to be available to every student who wants to participate. The teachers who devote their time to FIRST should receive stipends for the time they devote to the program. The coaches of high school athletic teams receive compensation for their time; the coaches of a sport that strengthens and sharpens the most powerful muscle of all -- the human brain -- should be held in equal esteem.

As President Obama stated in his State of the Union, "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline."

Government support, however, can only take a program like FIRST so far. Cultural adjustments are also needed, and such changes cannot occur through a signature on a piece of legislation. It instead requires a reexamination of our values. In a free society, you get what you celebrate, and America has done an excellent job of supporting and promoting achievement in athletics and entertainment. Most kids can probably tell you who plays quarterback for the Packers. But how many can name even a single living inventor or scientist? How many can identify who is leading the team that will develop the room-temperature superconductor, a development that will significantly change our future? Who can name the leading cancer researchers in the world, or those who are discovering the energy alternatives that will lead to a greener, safer planet? Sports and entertainment are the result of our wealthy society, not the cause of it. The future belongs to the innovators, and our society must celebrate their efforts and encourage the next generation to aspire to their achievements.

FIRST is very fortunate to receive the support of some of our nation's most iconic corporations, from industrial giants who have shaped technology for a hundred years to Internet companies that have fundamentally changed our way of life. We are also now in the process of garnering the attention and influence of media and popular culture. We are very proud of our recent collaboration with will.i.am, an incredible artist who combines his musical talent with a passion for the cause of education.

With the help of these influential sponsors and supporters, the message of FIRST can travel far and wide, and inspire millions of students to explore the endless possibilities of science and technology. It is a familiar call to action, but one that is just as important today as it was on the day that John F. Kennedy dreamed of the moment when man would step onto the lunar surface. In 2011, with the challenges and opportunities before us, it is time for America to reach beyond the moon. The distant horizon is our destination, and the next generation of technology leaders will take us there.