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Maybe Kids Won’t Be the Death of Industry

June 12, 2017
When you only allow yourself to see the bad side of kids today, the skills gap seems a chasm too wide. But we have met the future engineers of America, and there might be hope.

If you watch the news today, you get the sense that kids these days are nothing but a bunch of fidget spinning slackers, totally unprepared for the real world. We all have moments where we  witness kids doing or saying something really dumb and we think both our country and planet  are doomed. If you have your own teenagers, you probably have several of these a day.

It’s easy to ‘Chicken Little’ your way to a sleepless night, convincing yourself that Millennials are the worst generation ever—that they are going to capitulate to China, Russia, the Illuminati, the Matrix, or whatever non-gender specific boogey person inhabits your nightmares. Essentially, you’re afraid that everything you’ve believed in and worked hard for your whole life will be lost because our kids communicate in smiley faces and only one in five choose a STEM-related bachelor’s degree, while it’s half in China, according to the National Science Foundation.

But what happens to that when you meet someone who grew up in your town like 17-year-old technology phenom Peng Zhou, a world-champion roboticist, science advisor to a former president, space explorer, and cancer researcher?

Well, we did, so we can tell you.

NED editor Travis Hessman (left) hams it up as he takes the controls of the winning 2016 FIRST Robotics Competition robot at the IW Manufacturing & Technology Expo in Cleveland.

We met Zhou and a few other remarkable teenagers at the IW Manufacturing & Technology Expo in Cleveland last month. Through a partnership with the local Cuyahoga Community College, these Youth Technology Academy students ran an amazing robotics demo and drone obstacle course throughout the show.

If you were also able to behold how easily they operated these tools and instructed the much older engineers and plant managers on how to steer and fly them, you might have felt a little more confidence in this spackle generation we need to fill the skills gap.

And if you talked to Zhou, you’d probably feel absolutely giddy.

The lanky and unassuming teenager won’t turn 18 until July and just graduated from Design Lab Early College High School, but his list of accomplishments makes most adults jealous.

One of these might even help save lives.

“I built this 12-node Raspberry Pi computer that collects data, crunches it, and sends it back to help scientists research folding up protein,” Zhou explains.

The device—as powerful as a PC but less than one-fifth the cost—can help researchers understand and more effectively treat diseases like Cystic Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, and even cancer.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, Zhou also uses it to catalog the heavens with Einstein@Home. This is a crowd-sourced way to process data from the LIGO gravitational wave detector to search for black holes.

The budding innovator also assisted in building a bomb-detecting robot for the Cleveland police department prior to the Republican National Convention, and prior to that, led the Cuyahoga Community College Youth Robotics Team to a world championship (more than a month before LeBron James brought the city home the NBA title).

While admittedly not that great at video games, he used a joystick to pilot the Youth Tech Academy’s robot in the FIRST Robotics World Championship in St. Louis to first place. FIRST is the robotics club that inspired one of the co-founders of MegaBots, Matt Oehrlein, to go from playing giant mech PC games to building a real live, punching, chainsaw-wielding one. For this competition, challengers had to design and drive a robot that could catapult a kickball through a castle tower.

You’d think the team of about 25 local students and several others from Ohio cities had months to prepare for the game, which would pit them against 900 teams from 42 countries. But not quite.

“We had a week to mess with the robot, figure out the quirks and fix the motor,” Zhou says.

Cleveland high school student Peng Zhou (right) works on a robot as part of a local community college's STEM outreach.

In October 2016, he was asked to present that his Raspberry Pi project to a panel that included President Barack Obama, science advisor John Holdren, NSF director France Cordova, NASA director Charles Bolden and astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. It was part of the former president’s Kid Science Advisor initiative to emphasize STEM fields.

Zhou was one of 11 chosen out of 2,500 students for the honor—a life-changing opportunity to meet astronauts and a president and tell them about his invention.

Surely it must have been a mind-blowing event, right?

“It felt like a normal thing,” Zhou recalls. “I’ve been doing that all the time, going to conferences.”

Meanwhile, I could hardly hold my nerves at the M&T Show doing a Q&A in front of a hundred random strangers.

The STEM Race

Kevin Sarran (left), a former student and current program coordinator for YTA gives a tradeshow goer some quick drone flight lessons as he navigates the obstacle course.

The FIRST Robotics competition was started by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and several other inventions, in 1989, more than a decade before the acronym STEM was coined.

Sure, now STEM is a buzzword used for political capital and government grants, but leave it to politicians and bookkeepers to devalue the methods in which we understand and manipulate the physical and digital worlds. 

For those with even a passing appreciation for things made of energy or matter, making STEM education should be of utmost importance.

“I think that being competent in STEM fields at the end of secondary school is the modern equivalent of being literate and numerate in the 19th century,” says Michael S. Teitelbaum a senior researcher at Harvard Law School and author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.

In the book, Teitelbaum tackles the fears about the current skilled worker shortage and how even the Greatest Generation had these same fears after World War II.

Post World War II America was filled with fear about a great many things, but it was also prosperous. And that all had to do with America’s innovative industrial core. To keep that core strength, we’ll need engineers and mathematicians and computer programmers.

It’s why George Bilokonsky, the executive director of Tri-C’s YTA, has been developing programs since 2002 to make science and math palatable to students within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

“STEM is probably the most important thing in our generation because there’s an aging population that’s leaving the industry,” Bilokonsky, a former school teacher, says. “Unless we start teaching these kids about science technology, engineering, and math, we’re not going to be able to fill those slots.”

The students he brought with him to Cleveland Huntington Convention Center for the trade show can fill a few, but we’ll need more than that.

The good thing is that kids intuitively understand technology better than us. Bilokonsky mentions an engineer from NASA Glenn Research Center who worked with the teens who had trouble with his iPhone, and a 9th grader set it up for him.

“These younger kids are inherently raised in understanding this high tech,” he says. “We simply need to figure out how to harness that to turn into a job somewhere in the future.”

That doesn’t solely mean how to program a robot or understand how a motor works. It’s fitting into a team, collaborating, and also project management.

“Instead of playing the video games, they are taking them apart and putting them back together and changing the code that operates them,” he says.

And the goal is for the students to become the teachers. Zhou is a paid teacher’s assistant who goes to other schools to evangelize STEM.

“They learn a lot more from a kid like Peng than they ever would from someone like me,” Bilokonsky says.

Signs of Success

Who knows how this will work out, but exciting, immersive experiences such as the FIRST Robotics Competition and the organization’s Lego League competitions seem to be yielding results.

According to a survey done by Brandeis University, 98% of students said participating increased problem-solving skills, 95% for time management, and for 76% it increased communication.

Those are great skills any employer would want, and because building and competing with robots is a hell of a lot more fun than worksheets or growing a potato, alumni info indicates it’s twice as likely that FIRST participants will major in science or engineering in college.

As you may have guessed, Zhou is planning on going for an electrical engineering degree after an internship at Rockwell Automation this summer, and someday start his own company.

“I want to build a robotic car, something like Tesla, that’s automatic,” Zhou says.

Tesla was at the trade show, and Zhou did chat with them, so anything is possible. And knowing the country is still manufacturing eager future scientists and engineers, I get the feeling that America, and maybe the world, might be OK after all.