participating in technical pursuits. The numbers are a bad omen for companies and organizations looking for the future work force. Allen said that despite technology's massive expansion, the number of graduates with science and engineering degrees hasn't changed significantly since the 1970s.

Randy Schaeffer, regional director of New York/New Jersey FIRST, argues that a big part of the problem is the culture, as anyone familiar with IT projects can relate.

"On any fall afternoon, you don't have to go too far to find 22 kids out on a big, grassy field with hundreds and hundreds of community members, cheerleaders, pep bands, coaches and a lot of hoopla," said Schaeffer. "The local papers devote pages and pages to what those kids are doing.

As a result, they come away with the feeling that what they're doing is pretty cool and pretty important."

Allen echoed the same concern. Students need to be motivated as if they are star athletes to stay with these pursuits, as do those who volunteer their time to help mentor students in science and engineering.

"Think about football games," he said. "The coach, he gets paid to be there after school coaching those students in athletics. The robotics coaches that I know of in Georgia do it out of devotion. These guys are working every evening; they're working weekends - zero compensation in most cases. Think about the booster club for the football team, basketball team and soccer team. Where is the booster club [for areas like robotics], and where are the parents? There's not a mechanism to give these coaches the resources they need. We need to make robotics a lettering sport. We need to make it culturally acceptable."

The BEST and FIRST programs are making headway. The regional FIRST competition made the front page of several California newspapers. The numbers show progress too: Kids involved in FIRST and BEST are more likely than their peers to attend college. They're more likely to attain a post-graduate degree and major in science or engineering.

Changing the culturally accepted notion that athletes are cool and kids who like science are not isn't going to be easy. The roots of these perceptions reach into many facets of life. But there are signs of a shift. Pay attention to social networking sites and Web forums - the "nerdier" among us often rule the roost online. The onus to embrace math, science and engineering is as much on the community as it is on children.

Hopefully it isn't too little, too late. Regardless, people like Allen and Schaeffer are doing what they can to make geek chic.

And you thought all robots did was vacuum.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.