I agree that these programs are instrumental to getting young people interested and engaged in STEM careers and opportunities. I think beyond the local school-sponsored events, which are no doubt awesome, the programs that are sponsored and orchestrated by big business (like the Shell EcoMarathon and others that are similar) really do a lot. Not only do they foster an interest in engineering, but they go a long way in helping up and comers make the connection between innovation and real business needs and that is what is really important in terms of nurturing the next generation of engineers.
Beth, these are interesting projects and competitions. Hopefully they will have the desired effect. First Robotics is a great activity. I have seen it from high school to university. It really stimulates people to work on these things. Another fun one, although maybe not so benign, is robot wars. I first saw this in British TV when I was in England. My boys loved it.
A couple of years ago there was a solar vehicle race that ended in our town. My oldest son went with me to watch the finish. It really encouraged him.
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