Anytime you hear news of government sponsored cyborg beetles or shape-shifting robotic blobs, it's almost certain that Darpa is behind it. As the Pentagon's skunk research programs, their sole aim is to fund research so far out and cutting edge that it isn't yet on private industry's radar. And now they've aimed their sights on a squishier but no less intractable problem: Getting more kids interested in technology careers.
According to DangerRoom:
Darpa is soliciting proposals for initiatives that would attract teens to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), with an emphasis on computing. According to the Computer Research Association, computer science enrollment dropped 43% between 2003 and 2006. Darpa's worried that America's "ability to compete in the increasingly internationalized stage will be hindered without college graduates with the ability to understand and innovate cutting edge technologies in the decades to come.
Though they aren't specifying what sorts of programs might work—that's for applicants to figure out—but these might include mentorship programs and career days. (In related news, Time Warner, who can't seem to get your cable working right, recently announced that they're dedicating $100 million to just such a mentorship program.)
Darpa's RFP is barely written in English, but it contains some pretty sharp-eyed critiques of the current system. Darpa notes that even though there are plenty of sciency programs out there such as space camp, geared at middle-schoolers. But there's not much else. The challenge is to create a continuum of activities that engage students all along the path from middle-school to college.
Of course, the smart, Darpa way to do something like this would be to have educational grants and extra-curricular programs that follow a kid through high-school and fund their college, provided they enter a scientific career. (This works for West Point grads and the Army, no?)
But the big elephant in the room is the American culture of science education. How can you really get kids into these careers when most of America views evolution on par with intelligent design; when so many science teachers can barely communicate the lesson, much less the broader value of the disciplines they're teaching; and science is still looked as the providers of grinders and dweebs?
Then again, maybe if kids realized that scientists grow up to make crazy things like cyborg sharks, science would be a lot cooler.