The ESL Edge


Stimulus done right

So, we are nearing the end of the biggest stimulus spending package that this country has seen, and I wonder what we really have to show for it. A few filled pot holes, perhaps a junction or two that flows a little easier than it once did. But in a few years time, all of that will be forgotten and the pot holes will be back. I believe that this country’s greatness in technology was the result of two previous stimulus plans, namely the space race and the Cold War. Both of these fueled spending in technology, created a sense of need or pride within the country and inspired a whole generation of kids to want to get into technology. We lived off the back of that research for a couple of decades or more, and only now is the rest of the world catching up. The total return on that initial investment must have been huge.

In Portland, there was a proposal on the ballot for one of the largest increases in property taxes in history, the money to be used to repair schools. Not to improve education in any way. I know of many teachers who are being laid off at the moment or not having their contract for the next year renewed. I hear so many stories about education in this country being low and going lower compared to other countries. How then do we expect to earn our way out of the debt that we are taking on? Without a return on investment, stimulus is worthless, just like any other investment. Well, in fact it is worse than that, it is gratuitous spending that we cannot find a way to pay for.

So, what would be a good stimulus program for this country? There is one area that I can think of that inspires kids across the country, and would serve to set them on the right direction for their careers. I am talking about robots – designing them, racing them, solving challenges to make them do certain things, and OK for the more violent amongst us, robot destruction derbies or robots that fight. These challenges call for creativity, technical skills, team work – all of the things that I don’t see in many of the activities the kids spend their time on today, such as video games. I believe these kids need inspiration and this would be one way to do that.

About a month ago, National Instruments released a new version of its LabVIEW software, specifically tailored to LEGO Mindstorm and high school classrooms. Along with that, they made available several lessons that are accessible online.

Taken from their press release: “LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS completes the National Instruments and LEGO Education ‘robotics for all ages’ learning platform,” said Stephan Turnipseed, president of LEGO Education North America. “We now can deliver a framework of age-appropriate, hands-on learning technology and curricula that continuously progress with student skill level and learning objectives, from elementary all the way through university.”

And at ESC, Freescale was demonstrating their robot kit which contains a Tower System Mechatronics Board which is supported by Robot Vision Toolkit and RobotSee (a simple language with the power of C). The board has a 3-axis accelerometer and a 12 channel touch sensor.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was created by Dean Kamen in 1992 and is the world’s leading high-school robotics competition. This includes the original FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and the newer FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for ages 14–18, the FIRST Lego League (FLL) for ages 9–14, and Junior FIRST Lego League (Jr.FLL) for ages 6–9. By 2010/11 there were 245,000 students participating and the program provided more than $14M in college scholarships. It takes 90,000 volunteers to make the program work. We have about 50 Million kids in schools at the moment and while I am not saying that this is a program for everyone, I am sure it could be expanded to include many more than the 0.5 percent is reaches today.

I want to steal a graphic from the FIRST webpage shown here:

Now that is what I call stimulus in education, and to me this country should be putting a lot more money into programs such as this. How many pot holes get filled for $14M – not many! For NYC they have a budget of $190.4M for paving, but because of a bad winter, they are adding on another $2M just to fill a few more pot holes.

So what do you think would be a good stimulus program? Share your ideas here.

Brian Bailey – keeping you covered

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