News Journal: Want to see kids have fun? Watch them build robots

If you want to see kids totally immersed in and enjoying what they are doing, make it a point to go to the next competition held by First State Robotics.

First State Robotics is one of a number of nonprofit organizations working to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in Delaware. Maybe because I was the only member who had worked as an engineer and had a degree in engineering, I got really involved with STEM during my time in the Senate. I talked to many of the leading educators in the field, learned a lot and helped get some legislation passed that began to organize the U.S. government’s efforts in STEM.

At the top of my “to-do” list when I left the Senate was to make sure Delaware took a leadership position in the field, and I helped organize the STEM Council in our state. Today, the Council membership is a mix of educators, school administrators, technology employers, business leaders and government officials. They share a common goal – to evaluate the state of STEM education in Delaware and recommend ways to improve it.

Government and corporations both have a stake in making sure we have the kind of educated workforce that will keep us competitive in a fast-changing world. But there is a third player that can help us do that, and it is a uniquely American one. When the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States 180 years ago, he noted that, unlike citizens of European countries, Americans were constantly solving local problems by forming volunteer organizations, without government or business affiliations. That kind of American initiative lives on today in nonprofit organizations such as those working to promote STEM education in Delaware. First State Robotics is one of my favorites.

First State Robotics says its mission as “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

To further that mission, teams of students, mentored by dedicated volunteers, are organized to participate in statewide and regional events. Competitions are held in six different programs, all introducing young people to robotics.

The teams start with students in kindergarten and extend through high school. The youngest teams do incredible things with Legos. High school students build and operate robots. It takes a lot of hard work, both by the students and the volunteer STEM professionals, to design and build the robots and then get them to operate in the competitions. But you will never see more enthusiasm or a greater sense of achievement than you will at a First Robotics Competition.

The FRC program has grown by leaps and bounds every year. In 2014, over 350,000 students from around the globe were involved in the competitions. Its success was confirmed by a Brandeis University impact evaluation funded by the Ford Foundation. The study found that, among students who competed in the First Robotics Competition:

• 70 percent reported increased motivation in school
• 89 percent reported increased self-confidence
• 88 percent went on to college
• 55 percent majored in STEM disciplines
• 77 percent aspire to take post-graduate degrees
• 44 percent want a STEM career after college

Finally Brandeis found that those participating in FRC were a “diverse group, including substantial numbers of minorities (56 percent) and women (41 percent), and students from families with limited educational background.”

More than 90 percent of those involved in FRC come back to the program. They learn a lot, have fun and – an important bonus – are eligible for $20 million in scholarships.

I promise you, if you like watching your children on the soccer field, you will enjoy seeing them participate in FRC even more.

You can get more information by logging on to the Delaware STEM council website: You can also learn a lot more about First State Robotics and how to get involved as a competitor, volunteer or sponsor, on March 7 at the STEM expo being held at the Cab Calloway Theatre Lobby from 1-6 p.m.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. Senator from Delaware.