Last week, Sam Bridgham stood in the front hallway of Durango Public Library unpacking a striking series of eight robots made of Legos, each as different from the other as the dwarves in Snow White.
A stern, giant man came purposefully striding through the librarys side entrance his air suggesting he was in no mood to pay fines. He stopped dead at Bridghams table of robots.
Whats that? he barked at Bridgham.
Blow into the sensor, Bridgham replied.
The man blew into the sensor, causing the arms of the adjacent windmill to swing. He let out a delighted gasp.
Americas artificial intelligence
Supported by a $2,500 grant from La Plata Electric Association, Bridgham is teaching after-school robotics courses that cost $100 to $150 through Durango Parks and Recreation. The program is part of 4-H Extensions nationwide effort to promote STEM education science, technology, engineering and math.
Barbara Shaw, 4-Hs Western Regional STEM specialist, says if 4-H wins a $24,000 Google Rise Grant in December, the program will culminate in Bridgham operating mobile technology labs that roam the Four Corners.
Instead of people having to come to a particular place to experience technology, well pack the technology up and bring it to them, so we can reach outlying communities at a low cost, said Bridgham with Alpine Mobile Institute and Technology. Working with 4-H Extension agencies will formalize a big part of what the LPEA grant is making possible.
If these ambitions sound specific, their impetus is grand. Educators, including Shaw, 4-H, NASA, President Barack Obama and every major education council, say the greatest threat to America is not al-Qaida, the national debt or nuclear war with Iran, but the nations failure to invest in STEM education.
The National Commission on Mathematics and Science for the Twenty-first Century estimates that 60 percent of 21st century jobs will require skills possessed by fewer than 20 percent of the current workforce, and the U.S. may lack as many as 3 million high-skilled workers by 2018.
Congress recently voted down a bill that would have provided 55,000 permanent-residency visas each year to immigrants with advanced degrees in STEM subjects to address the national shortage of skilled STEM workers.
Thats crazy, Shaw said. Why dont we just train our own workforce?
The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in the quality of its math and science education.
According to the seminal report about STEM education, The Gathering Storm, Revisited, U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy research and development ($7.1 billion versus $5.1 billion in 2009) and 49 percent of American adults dont know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun. Yet federal funding of research in the physical sciences as a fraction of GDP fell by 54 percent in the 25 years after 1970, engineering by 51 percent.
As American investment in STEM education withers, in just 15 years, China has moved from 14th place to second place in published scientific research articles (just behind the U.S.). The Center for American Progress found that between 2000 and 2008, China graduated 1.14 million people in the STEM subjects, while the U.S. graduated 496,000.
Back at the library
A small child with dark hair and a red Hello Kitty doll, munching on a peanut butter sandwich, pointed at a robot whose eyes changed color, flashing green then red.
How does that work? she asked shyly.
Handing her a flashlight, Bridgham explained that the closer you held a light to its eyes which were sensors the faster the robot would move across the floor. Seizing the flashlight, the child immediately shone the light directly into the robots eyes, and the two went speeding through the foyer.
C-3PO, the prim robot of the Star Wars series, would have tut-tutted the ensuing ruckus, as five other children joined her chase. (Though the ever-game R2-D2 would have beeped with pleasure.)
Bridgham said the librarys shattered silence was worth it: The boisterous shouts were the price of interesting them in STEM education.
Robotics is where mechanical engineering, computer programming and pure Greek geometry come together. When the kids are building robots with Legos, they dont understand that what theyre doing is geometry or engineering theyre just doing it, he said.
While STEM education is a national emergency, affairs are slightly better in Durango.
Shaw said that, nationally, STEM suffers because most elementary school teachers dont have science backgrounds.
In Durango, Julie Popp, Durango School Districts spokeswoman, said all elementary school teachers are required to undergo science education, and every middle and high school science teacher has a science degree.
Popp also said that while all Durango High School students are required to have three years of science and four years of math, Durango students have many opportunities to engage in STEM programs, from the high schools award-winning Aerospace Design Team to Lego League in the elementary schools.
Shaw said 4-H was working with district schools to expand Bridghams robotics program into the mobile technology labs and STEM education generally.
Funding wise, its an uphill battle. But I think were gearing up to really meet the need, she said.
Bridgham takes a bright view: Theres a glaring gap between STEM education in America and other countries. But primarily, STEM should be taught because its thrillingly interesting, current and fun.