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CNN Presents

CNN Presents: Don't Fail Me, Education in America

Aired May 21, 2011 - 20:00   ET



STUDENTS: However long it takes, they will be hunted down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm so excited.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought that was that other robot when he turned around.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. It looked like a near head-on collision.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had 15 people working super hard to get our robot working.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you ready? In three, two, one --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Carlos is here. Jackie's here.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: It's before dawn on a Saturday in January. And across the country, thousands of teenagers are up and ready to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very excited.

O'BRIEN: From New Jersey to Arizona. To Tennessee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're about to go and find out what our objective is.

O'BRIEN: It's opening day. Broadcast live from New Hampshire. But this is no ordinary sport. America's future is on the line.

It's a robotic competition that brings 50,000 high school students into stadiums across the country. They call it an Olympics of the mind. The purpose is to inspire kids to take challenging math and science classes to prepare them for the high-tech jobs of the future.

It's what American public schools often fail to do.

ARNE DUNCAN, SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: We've basically had a 19th century model of education that is not preparing enough young people to be successful in the 21st century of global economy.

It's amazing to me that at a time of high unemployment rates we actually have over two million unfilled high-wage, high-skilled jobs.

O'BRIEN (on camera): So there are two million jobs right now that are --

DUNCAN: That are unfilled, high-wage, high-skilled jobs, because we haven't produced what we need to do.

URSULA BURNS, CEO, XEROX: The work has to be done, so we send the work to people in other places that can get it done. This is absolutely backwards.

O'BRIEN: You run a Fortune 500 company. Are you worried about finding employees for your company who can do the job?

BURNS: The answer is, more than worried. I'm living with the problem. I'm panic-stricken about it.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): And that's why companies like Xerox are funding this robotics competition.

Among this year's competitors, Maria Castro, Brian Whited, Shaan Patel. Three kids from three different economic backgrounds. With very different opportunities.

MARIA CASTRO, STUDENT: I want to become a solar engineer and I want to go to Stanford University.

O'BRIEN: Junior Maria Castro is a student at the mostly Latino Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona. The average family here makes less than $30,000 a year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maria, what is the ratios of the 45?

CASTRO: The one and one and the radical two?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, one, the radical two. Beautiful thing, right?

O'BRIEN: Maria wants a career that pays well and is pushing herself and her school to get it.

CASTRO: I was like, well, why isn't anybody, like, challenging me? I mean, I would do a whole week's lesson a class period. And I was just like, OK, this is too simple for me. It's like, OK, what's next?

O'BRIEN (on camera): Do you worry that when you go off to college you're not going to be prepared to compete?

CASTRO: Yes. I -- and especially like with this example, English. We're learning how to capitalize and when to capitalize. I mean, that's things my little sister should be learning, you know.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): It's because more than half of the 220 students at Maria's school don't pass statewide tests in reading and math.

FREDI LAJVARDI, COACH, FALCON ROBOTICS: When they come to school, you know, they come with fourth grade reading level and behind in math, so we really have a lot of catching up to do.

O'BRIEN: Guitar player Brian Whited is from middle class Seymour, Tennessee. This senior is about to become a programmer on his school's brand new robotics team.

BRIAN WHITED, SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I guess I'm a nerd. I've got all the honors classes, got the scholars bowl, bands, jazz bands, and now robotics to tack on to that. National Honor Society.

I guess I just do all the higher level education things.

Should we connect them side to side?

O'BRIEN: Brian wants to get into a top engineering school, but already he's at a disadvantage.

(On camera): Are there classes that you are not able to take because they're not offered in this school that you'd like to take?

WHITED: Well, I guess, any AP classes at all.

O'BRIEN: There's no AP classes here?

WHITED: No AP. Anything.

O'BRIEN: Advanced placement?

WHITED: Right.

O'BRIEN: No choice. Not biology, chemistry, physics, history?

WHITED: Nothing.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Advanced placement classes give a leg up to students who want to get into top colleges. Brian hasn't taken one.

Sophomore Shaan Patel is from upper middle class Montgomery, New Jersey. The son of Indian emigrants Shaan is already taking two AP classes which leaves him little time for his favorite hobby, dancing.

SHAAN PATEL, SOPHOMORE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I'm taking (INAUDIBLE) Honors, Spanish 4, AP U.S. History 1, AP Statistics, English Honors and Chemistry Honors.

And then after school, I have Boy Scouts, robotics and dance.

O'BRIEN (on camera): So AP classes, honors classes, a full slated of after-school activities and how much homework every night?

PATEL: Like two to four hours usually.

O'BRIEN: That sounds like you're swamped. Do you feel pressured?

PATEL: Well, I mean I get stressed, but the thing is, like it was my choice to take all these classes, it was my choice to take extracurriculars. O'BRIEN (voice-over): In the U.S. students have a choice. And most choose not to take the tough math and science classes. But in most industrialized countries, classes like chemistry and physics aren't optional. It's one reason why out of 34 countries, American students rank 17th in science, 25th in math.

(On camera): Shanghai, China, Finland, South Korea, Slovakia, Canada, Australia, Estonia, Ireland, Belgium. That's just a partial list.

DUNCAN: Singapore.

O'BRIEN: Who are ahead of us?


O'BRIEN: Why does it matter that we're number 17 and 25?

DUNCAN: We should be leading the world in education. And one generation ago we did. One generation ago we had the highest percent of college graduates in the world. We're flat lined, we've stagnated. It's simply not good enough.

DEAN KAMEN, FOUNDER OF FIRST: If we don't generate the next group of innovators, scientists, engineers, problem solvers in this country, our standard of living, our quality of life, our security will plummet.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Dean Kamen has made his millions with inventions from the insulin pump to the Segway.

KAMEN: If you want kids to study math and science, you don't create a science fair.

O'BRIEN: That's why he created the robotics competition he calls FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. This year's challenge, to build a robot that can race across a field and score points by hanging tubes on pegs. And this time a new twist. Students must build a second mini robot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Race to the top of the towers.

CASTRO: That is to cool.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First mini-bot the top gets a 30-point bonus.

PATEL: I think this looks really awesome and I can't wait to get started. The mini-bot was kind of confusing, though.

CASTRO: Thank you, sir.

O'BRIEN: Is the answer to America's future in this box of parts?

Starting now, Maria, Brian, Shaan and tens of thousands of other students have six weeks to turn these pieces --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I call this robotics Christmas. O'BRIEN: -- into a working robot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are different. I've never seen this kind before.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This would be rotational momentum.

O'BRIEN: In New Jersey Shaan's team is counting on figuring it out with the help of an advanced physics. But Maria's team has a secret plan. Which one will have the advantage?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you want to go to the top at six points --

CASTRO: Well, there's a secret and arrow down our design hopefully so next thing we can start building.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a 35 by 27 inch.

CASTRO: So 8.80.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to be working on just prototyping out of Legos.

O'BRIEN: Week one in Arizona. The key to doing well at this robotics competition, create a fast robot with an arm that can grip and score.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two little arms like this.

LAJVARDI: How high can the arm go that we're building? A three-piece arm, a two-piece arm? All these kind of things that we're working out.

CASTRO: Like shaping it?

O'BRIEN: Maria is vice president of the robotics team.

CASTRO: It's just my little sister and I.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Because everybody is older and moved out.

CASTRO: Yes, everybody moved out. Or got kicked out.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): She's the sixth of seven children.

CASTRO: All of my brothers and sisters were straight A students.

O'BRIEN (on camera): And they went from being A students to --

CASTRO: Dropping out.

O'BRIEN: Dropping out altogether.

CASTRO: Yes. They did. My sister got pregnant when she was younger. And like, everybody was kind of just expecting me to follow into their same footsteps, you know.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Everybody, including her father. She overheard him two years ago at her (speaking in foreign language), her 15th birthday party.

CASTRO: He was like, just a matter of time before she fails.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Fails?

CASTRO: Yes. He's just like -- it doesn't really matter what she does right now. I mean, she'll eventually give up.

It hurts because everything I did was to make him happy, to make him proud. And out of all his kids I've been the one who's helped him the most. Well, that's the way I see things, you know. And it hurt. Just like, listen --

O'BRIEN: Did it motivate you in any way?

CASTRO: Yes, it did.

O'BRIEN: It did?

CASTRO: Yes. I kind of just took and looked around, you know. Now it's like, OK, if I'm going to get straight A's it's not just for you anymore, it's for me.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): By 2015 minority students will be more than half of U.S. school children. Latino students are the fastest growing group and they have the highest dropout rates.

DUNCAN: We have dropout rates in the minority community of 40, 50, 60 percent. That's morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

O'BRIEN (on camera): What's the risk if black and Latino students are not taking those high-level math classes?

BURNS: It's just a disaster. The risk is that you have a country with a population who are excluded financially from the success of the nation.

O'BRIEN: Because that's where the jobs are.

BURNS: That's where the jobs are.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Maria's goal, to study solar engineering at Stanford. Of the 30,000 who apply there annually, 2300, just 7 percent, are accepted.

CASTRO: I've analyzed, like, all the classes I was taking. And with what I have, I wasn't going to be able to take calculus before the end of my senior year. O'BRIEN (on camera): What's wrong with taking just pre-calculus?

CASTRO: Well, I -- to get into the university I want -- I have to have -- at minimum calculus.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): So Maria took action, signing up 31 students and a teacher for an accelerated math class which combines algebra and pre-calculus into one. Next she had to find the money for that after- school class.

CASTRO: Everybody else is, like, I'm not going to go. Are you kidding me? Go talk to the principal? No. What if I get in trouble? I'm like, you're not going to get in trouble, you're asking for something.

O'BRIEN: Maria's mother came with her to school every day to push for the new class.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's an exemplary student. I am very proud of this, just of her being my daughter.

O'BRIEN: Maria's father emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s. He learned English working in the backs of restaurants. Now he supports his family with Social Security retirement checks.

(On camera): What do you think motivates her?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Her own will. I mean, she's oneself -- she can do a lot of things. She wants to be better than probably many people around her.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): After months of lobbying, Maria finally got the math class.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tangent of 30 is what, Maria?

CASTRO: Radical three over three.


O'BRIEN: It started in September with 32 students. But five months later, only 12 are left.

(On camera): Is she unusual?

LAJVARDI: She's unusual. There are kids that have some degree of Maria in them. Maria tends to be the one out in the front.

CASTRO: We're studying for our math final.

Am I to use just sign or co-sign?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Co-sign and then you can use the sign.

CASTRO: This is backwards.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): To stay in the advanced math class, Maria must study --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is multithread into that.

O'BRIEN: -- while her team tests and adjusts the robot's army.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now where is it hitting?

O'BRIEN: It's been nine years since Teacher Fredi Lajvardi started the team. His robotic alumni now work as engineers at Intel and Microchip, making two, three, four times what their parents earn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have something to show you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This looks very exciting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to blow your mind. It is an arm segment.

LAJVARDI: Are you satisfied with it?


LAJVARDI: Once we point out to the kids that these jobs are available, and look at the salary you can make, once they see that, I don't even have to push them anymore. I need to just get out of their way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here, lift it up.

O'BRIEN: They want to go all the way to the nationals in St. Louis, where they'll face off against wealthy, highly rated schools.


O'BRIEN (on camera): Are you worried that they've got a major advantage in this competition?

CASTRO: As much as money they have, that's how much heart we have into it. That's how much harder we have to try.


O'BRIEN: So it's on?



O'BRIEN (voice-over): This year Maria's team is working on a secret strategy. It's something neither the team in Tennessee nor the team in New Jersey has.

PATEL: You have to have at least six wheels on this thing. It's got to go 10 inches per second. If the pole is there and pushing on to the pole --

O'BRIEN: Shaan is only a sophomore but he's already a year ahead of Maria, a junior, in math.

(On camera): You'll take calculus next year.


O'BRIEN: That's a college level class, right?

PATEL: I think so. I think a lot of schools do that. I think a lot of kids do take calculus in high school.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): He's wrong. Only 16 percent of U.S. students take calculus in high school.

NEEPA PATEL, SHAAN PATEL'S MOTHER: Well, the way it works here is by sixth grade the children begin only for math instruction. They start differentiating.

O'BRIEN: In Montgomery, parents put kids on the track to advanced math in grade school.

PATEL: I try to take classes that will challenge me. I'm trying to challenge myself as much as I can.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Your brother is autistic.

PATEL: My brother has autism, yes.

O'BRIEN: Do you think you view the word differently because you have a brother who's autistic?

PATEL: I feel that I have, like, no right not to use any abilities that I have and that's why I want to challenge myself so much.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): So he's loaded his schedule and he's a builder on his school's robotics team.

PATEL: Push in from the bottom up.

O'BRIEN: Acquiring skills that will make him successful in an engineering program. This year Shaan's dad, a mechanical engineer, is volunteering on the robotics team. The first challenge for this team, their arm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be an elevator type thing, so we'll start off like this and then it will just push it up like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have two unknowns here. We have acceleration and torque.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. This would be rotational momentum.

CASTRO: We both take AP physics. The class is helping me now because we know how to solve for, like, the amount of force needed in order to, you know, lift up the elevator.

O'BRIEN: Shaan's teammates believe they have a winning design. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ready? Enable.

O'BRIEN: The programmers are testing their new code.

PATEL: Any error messages?

O'BRIEN: And it doesn't work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's my code. Why doesn't it work?

O'BRIEN: In classrooms across Tennessee, there's a completely different sort of struggle. Following a stunning admission from the former governor.

(On camera): Were you lying to parents about --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, absolutely.


O'BRIEN: In Tennessee rookie programmer Brian has taught himself the code to make his robot move.

WHITED: It's like learning a new language. You know you learn a little bit. You figure it out more as you go. But we don't know much of it but we know enough for now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can have forward and backwards so it would be up and down.

WHITED: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the first arm. And If you pulled the trigger, that's the second arm.

O'BRIEN: This is the very first year Brian's team is building. Wiring and programming.

WHITED: You go backwards. Of course it goes backwards.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Can you show me what the code looked like?

WHITED: Yes. Sure.

O'BRIEN: Did you map it out first?


O'BRIEN (voice-over): Brian is a senior at Seymour High School. Here, more than 70 percent of students will go on to higher education.

(On camera): What age did you know you were going off to college?

WHITED: I was maybe 7 or 8.

O'BRIEN: Years old. WHITED: Yes.

O'BRIEN: You knew you were going to college.


O'BRIEN: Because your mom was, like, you're going to college?


O'BRIEN (voice-over): His mom, Juanita, didn't attend college. She's making sure her three children don't make the same mistake. Brian is the youngest. This last year has been very difficult for the family. Brian's father, Jeff, fought leukemia for years. He was only 48 when he died last spring.

JUANITA, BRIAN WHITED'S MOTHER: I've started to realize which things are important and which things aren't.

O'BRIEN (on camera): After your husband died?



JUANITA: It didn't matter how much money we had. I would rather him have done more that he wanted to do.

O'BRIEN: What's your vision of the best for Brian?

JUANITA: I would want him to do something that he loves and something that he's passionate about. I would also like him to be comfortable.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Comfortable means a high-paying, high-tech job. Brian took the ACT college entrance exam just two days after his father's funeral. And he aced it. Scoring in the top 1 percent of the entire nation. Suddenly, Brian had a world of opportunity open to him.

(On camera): Brown, MIT, so what's more?

JUANITA: And the strange thing was, that when he took his ACT, he did not put any of these schools at all, so they must have a way of tracking people.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Yale also sent an application. And it became his top choice.

(On camera): What do you think his chances are for getting in?

JUANITA: I don't know.

O'BRIEN: Do you think his education is as good as anybody else in the country?

JUANITA: No, no. Definitely not. I mean, I -- O'BRIEN: That's a nice school. That's a good school.

JUANITA: Right, right.

O'BRIEN: Full of middle class people.


O'BRIEN: With great middle class values.


O'BRIEN: And you don't think he's getting a great education?

JUANITA: It might be my misperception but I always keep thinking that it's better everywhere else.

L O'BRIEN (voice-over): Maybe not a misperception. After this revelation from Tennessee's former Governor Phil Bredesen.

(On camera): Were you lying to parents about --


O'BRIEN: Out and outlying to parents about how well their kids were doing?

BREDESEN: In one case in eighth grade math we were telling 83 or 84 percent of the kids that they were proficient when they took the national test.

O'BRIEN: What was the real number?

BREDESEN: 22 percent.

O'BRIEN: 22 percent instead of 84 percent.

BREDESEN: Instead of 84. And you just say, look, you know, you may feel good for a minute.

O'BRIEN: But it's a lie.

BREDESEN: If you think that, but you're not doing these kids any favor by lying to them like that.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): High scores on easy state tests made Tennessee seem like an educational powerhouse. The truth, Tennessee was one of the lowest performing states in the country.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country.

O'BRIEN: In 2001 the passage of "No Child Left Behind" tied student test scores to federal education dollars.

(On camera): President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law, the states have to report their standardized test scores but they're making their own tests. You're going to need to report your numbers but guess what, you get to design your own test. I mean that's what "No Child Left Behind" do.

BREDESEN: It's going to be, you report your numbers, and by the way, some really bad things happen if your numbers aren't good, so you can figure out how to figure out the numbers. And I think that pushed an awful lot of states in the direction of, well, we don't want these bad things to happen. We don't want to lose federal funding. We don't want to be held up as bad school systems so --

O'BRIEN: They dumb down the tests.

BREDESEN: Let's make it work. Let's make it work.

O'BRIEN: And make it work mean they dumb down the test?


O'BRIEN: Governor Bredesen said very bluntly, we lied. We lied to parents in the state of Tennessee. How many other states are lying?

DUNCAN: In many, many states we have been lying to children and lying to families.

O'BRIEN: What's many, many? More than half?

DUNCAN: Yes -- yes, probably more than half, absolutely.

O'BRIEN: More than two-thirds?

DUNCAN: Well, you -- you know, you can go -- you can do the math and look at those disparities.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): We did look. Out of 30 states that have reported test scores for 2010, 29 claimed their eighth graders are doing better in math than national tests indicate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First we have to change that after we set it up.

O'BRIEN: In Tennessee easy tests came with low standards. But reforms put in place by Governor Bredesen are now raising the bar for all students.

BREDESEN: The whole process of just getting more kids interested I think --

O'BRIEN: The focus of Tennessee's reforms, the math and science curriculum. The idea, pay those teachers more, create specialized science schools in poor neighborhoods and put into place some of the toughest graduation requirements in the country.

Governor Bredesen also joined more than 40 other states in developing a set of high national standards in reading and math.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is just to give a visual -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is just to give a visual, yes.

O'BRIEN: But Tennessee's reforms come too late for high school seniors like Brian.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your sum value at zero.

O'BRIEN: At Brian's school, only about 20 students a year out of 1300 take calculus or physics, the top math and science classes offered.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We started out with, I believe, eight or nine and several dropped.

O'BRIEN: Seymour's calculus teacher can't keep students in her classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then they realize, well, I'm going to have to work. And I think some were burnt out their senior year. And I think, oh, we're going to have to work. I don't know if I want to put in this much time.

O'BRIEN (on camera): What about the parents? I mean do the parents call you up and say, put Jimmy in physics, I want him to be the most prepared?


O'BRIEN: No, never?


O'BRIEN (voice-over): What parents do call the principal about, sports.

CLARK: We live in America. Our sports are important to us.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Does that drive you crazy?

CLARK: Well, no. It's it is what it is, I guess.

O'BRIEN: That's a value system.


O'BRIEN: How do you change a value system?

CLARK: People, it has to be important to them. You know, you've got average, and there's nothing wrong with average. Average middle class, we're very happy, this is wonderful, we're moving along here.

O'BRIEN: But no one is knocking down the door saying, make this school great?

CLARK: Right. I want to provide the best education I can for the students. That's my job. Everybody should be pushing toward the top. But getting them to do it, you know, jumping on board and saying, hey, let's go, is not as easy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one turns revolutions into engines.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): A big challenge for this team --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like, so if you have to, what would you think --

O'BRIEN: -- getting the arm built on time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we've got that arm set as big as it's going to be angle wise. It's about like that.

WHITED: This week is going to be programming the arm, building the arm, putting the arm on, seeing what we're going to do with the mini- bot, we're not entirely sure on that.

O'BRIEN: Will their inexperience keep them from winning? What role do parents play when it comes to getting kids to tackle math and science?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do we know which way is front?

O'BRIEN: Three weeks left to finish the robot. Maria's veteran team is test-driving their secret weapon. If their plan works, it could give them a huge competitive advantage. Six days a week her team is building and practicing, but twice a week Maria must miss robotics for the accelerated math class she fought for.

CASTRO: Oh, my god, it's the final.

O'BRIEN: Four more students have dropped. Only eight remain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do all your work on a scratch paper. Just like we've done in the past.

O'BRIEN: Today Maria has a big test. To advance to pre-calculus, she has to pass.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You solve that.

O'BRIEN: Only hours later Maria gets good news.

CASTRO: Yes. I got an A.


O'BRIEN: She'll be ready for calculus as a senior.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to compensate. It starts varying. It's still off. So now you just have to worry about getting the right gear going.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. That's good enough.

CASTRO: Yes. Let's go home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go home and do your homework.

CASTRO: I'm so tired. Make sure the door's locked.

(Speaking in foreign language) I got an A on the test.


CASTRO: Thank you.

O'BRIEN (on camera): So how do your parents feel about it? Do they support you?

CASTRO: They do but, I mean, there's not much they can do to support me. So, like, there's no money. And they -- educational wise, my dad dropped out of sixth grade, my mom dropped out of fifth grade because their fathers, both of them, had their fathers pass away.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): The Patels are watching President Obama's State of the Union address. The president's focus, education.

For Shaan, the focus is midterms.

PATEL: I guess I have to stay up pretty late, until 12:30, 1:00-ish. You can't really have bedtime when you have a lot of stuff to get done.

N. PATEL: I think he's very much the typical American teenager, hanging out with his friends, going to the movies. Same old thing.

O'BRIEN (on camera): And taking classes that most American teenagers will never take.

N. PATEL: But in this town they do.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Montgomery, New Jersey, population 22,000. Average family income, more than $200,000 a year. It's home to some of the nation's biggest pharmaceutical and tech companies. And what's most important to families here --

N. PATEL: We knew they had a great school system and that was really the clincher.

PATEL: We're going to get together tomorrow night to study.

CHARLIE PATEL, SHAAN PATEL'S FATHER: Education is what us parents can give to kids to give them a sound footing.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Do you think your kid is getting a great education?

N. PATEL: I do.

PATEL: He's been saying that for week. He's doesn't -- he never believes that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sixty over N square, times J, divided by four plus square.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): At Shaan's school it's mostly children of Asian immigrants who are taking the very top math and science classes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How about 20? How about 20? Twenty?

O'BRIEN: This is advanced placement physics.

(On camera): So your school is 30 percent Asian, but when you look at advanced placement classes, physics, 89 percent of the students taking that class are Asian. Chemistry, 72 percent. What do you think is the reason behind those numbers?

PAUL POPADIUK, PRINCIPAL, MONTGOMERY HS: It's probably where the student and parents wish to go as far as trying to get into a specific field. Engineering or math, science, chemistry related fields. They're kind of charting that path very early on.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Asians are 5 percent of the U.S. population. But they make up more than a quarter of the engineering graduates at top engineering schools like CalTech and MIT.

PATEL: I think it's more like the parenting than it is just being Asian.

N. PATEL: But we think current events are important, Shaan. That's why. That's why we ask you, OK?

PATEL: I get that. I'm just saying we don't do it in class. Education is the most important thing.

N. PATEL: I think he learned. He did it.

PATEL: Grades come first, and I know that. And a lot of kids, a lot of houses are like that.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Do Asian families put a greater emphasis on math and science? Do they place a greater value on math and science?

N. PATEL: I think they see careers in the math and science fields as a way to success. These are poor countries you're talking about, so you're looking for a way out sometimes.

PATEL: On all four or just --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Just double check.

N. PATEL: And what better way to get it than ensure that you will be able to get a job.

PATEL: Perfect. That's -- yes, that's the reverse turning, not the forward.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Two weeks left and Brian Whited is working on the robot every single day.

WHITED: Everybody ready?

O'BRIEN: Writing code.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Here we go. Go. Wow.

WHITED: What did you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of them -- you have to put as a negative to make it turn.

WHITED: Oh, yes.

O'BRIEN: Fixing glitches.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. So that's false. No, this one's true. False, true, false, it should work. Let's try this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it worked. It worked.

WHITED: What is it finding?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The three foot line it works.

WHITED: Yes, that's true.

O'BRIEN: His rookie team has never done any of this before.

(On camera): This is the mini-bot?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the mini-bot and it is built to climb up this pole, put it on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It automatically turns on.

O'BRIEN: Is it going to win?





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to try to do this in one motion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Off with his head.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): That arm needs to get fixed fast. Because across the country the battle for a spot at finals is getting under way.


O'BRIEN: One week left to the finish. In New Jersey, Shaan and his teammates are putting in the long hours, completing their robot.

(On camera): What makes you think you have the best robot?

PATEL: It's fast. And it's maneuverable.

O'BRIEN: Are you feeling the pressure already?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not yet, but I know last year we were in finals, I could feel it.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Their goal -- finish early and give Tenet (ph), the driver days to practice.

(On camera): Your classmates are all backing up. I wonder why. I go --


O'BRIEN: No button, just push down.


O'BRIEN: OK. That's my right. That's my left. I'm not sure I have it down yet. Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just back up. It's fine. So now you know one of the pressures I face.

O'BRIEN: Think you're going to win?

PATEL: I think we're going to win.

O'BRIEN: There's glass all around the outside of it?

CASTRO: For the most part.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Only hours left until the robot must be completed.

CASTRO: Some gears on both sides. This is the chain. (INAUDIBLE) for reinforcement and --

O'BRIEN (on camera): That sounds like a lot for 24 hours.

(Voice-over): Maria's team is frantically checking wires and testing circuits. Six weeks of work comes down to this one moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're in good shape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Remember 116205, verified.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Think you're going to win?

CASTRO: Yes. I think we're pretty dangerous this year.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): Especially dangerous because of their secret strategy. They built a second identical robot. That means even after their robot is packed, they'll have a full month to practice. Most teams don't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm so excited .

O'BRIEN: Early spring and as 48 regionals across the country, thousands of teams are competing for a shot at the finals in St. Louis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You need to plug that in. This is ready to go.

O'BRIEN: Maria's team has never built a winning robot. Could their secret strategy give them the advantage they need?

CASTRO: I have really high hopes we're going to win right now.

O'BRIEN: Shaan's team, the kids taking the top math and science classes, is competing in the Pennsylvania regional. They're excited to test their robot, number 1403.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's hear it for team 1403. Three, two, one, go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys score. We'll play defense.

O'BRIEN: To play, three robots work together to form the red team. Another three make up the blue team. They score points by hanging tubes and deploying mini-bots. Get the most points, win the round.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got first. We got first.

PATEL: Both my parents, my brother came, and my grandma and my other grandma and grandpa all came. So it's just really great that they all came to support me. I'm so happy to see them all. And I got to show them my robot.

O'BRIEN: At Brian's Tennessee regionals, he and his mom are anxiously watching their robot, 3675. And the arm isn't working.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Fifty second left to go.

O'BRIEN: They can't hang any tubes which means their robot can't score for the team. Can these first-timers make a comeback?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can't move. I can't move.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can't score. We can't score.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of our wires popped and then our limit switch broke.

O'BRIEN: Shaan is on the pit crew. Their job is to fix the robot and get it back in the game quickly.


O'BRIEN: The robot is back in, but will the team score enough to make it to the finals?

PATEL: We hope we're going to win. We're not so sure, but we think we can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got to go through it.

O'BRIEN: In Arizona, Maria's team must win the next two out of three matches to advance to the finals. Game one, easy win, but their robot is taking a beating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought it was that other robot when he turned around. It looked like a near head-on collision.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back up and go forward. Go forward.

O'BRIEN: Game two --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, you're not on.

O'BRIEN: A loss. Everything hangs on game three.


O'BRIEN: Three teams, three chances to go to the finals in St. Louis. Who will make it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In three, two, one --


O'BRIEN: It's down to the wire at the regionals. The teams must win to advance to the final competition in St. Louis. In Tennessee, Brian's team is still unable to score.

WHITED: Might as well just get in there. The robot didn't do too well. It achieved well for us being rookies.

O'BRIEN: But their hard work is rewarded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our next award is the Rookie Inspiration Award. Congratulations 3675. From Seymour, Tennessee.

WHITED: I didn't expect to get an award.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get out of my way. Get out of my way quick. Hit it. O'BRIEN: Meanwhile in Pennsylvania --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, back, mini-bot, mini-bot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 1403, and set, fire. Here we go. Oh, burst.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have to argue that. We're not taking that penalty.

PATEL: I'm pretty sure we got second or third.

N. PATEL: Beautiful.

O'BRIEN: Shaan's team wins an Engineering Award. But they don't score enough to advance to St. Louis.

PATEL: I'm kind of disappointed right now. But I'm not -- I don't feel too bad because we definitely had a great time.

O'BRIEN: New Jersey and Tennessee are out.


O'BRIEN: In Arizona, Maria's team is still in. Everything hangs on this last game.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Blue, blue, blue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Drop it. There you go. Right there. Up, up. Down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mini-bot, go. Mini-bot. On the way. Wait. Fire. Yes.

O'BRIEN: Their secret strategy, all the extra practice time, pays off with a victory.

LAJVARDI: Everything that we've been telling the kids and everything the kids have been working for really paid off and they can see it. That's what winning today means.

CASTRO: Four, three, two, one, zero.

O'BRIEN: Starting now, they have one month to practice for the finals.

CASTRO: I've sacrificed a lot to be on this team. And I hope that once we win nationals, it will finally pay off.

O'BRIEN (on camera): What do you see when you look up in these stands?

KAMEN: I see the same thing you see. The future of this country. It is undeniable that those kids in 10 years will be the work force and the leadership of this country.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): More than 15,000 students have traveled to this stadium for a shot at the championship. Maria's team, the top seed from Arizona, isn't doing well in the qualifying rounds.

CASTRO: Everything was just going really, really bad. And the only thing we had good yesterday was the pizza.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, no. He called penalty.

CASTRO: Did he go into the lane?


O'BRIEN: They must win the next match or go home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay with him. Stay with him. Push that white one. Push the white one.

CASTRO: Now we're playing defense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Push it. Push it. Push it. Push it. Compensate. You can do this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We lost that one, guys.

CASTRO: We lost?

LAJVARDI: Yes. Got first and second on the mini-bot, so we're out. They had a huge experience here. There's a lot of new kids here and we're going to come back stronger next year.

CASTRO: Don't worry about it. You do. It's a good job. I'm proud of you all.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Do you feel like you're a winner?

CASTRO: Yes. Our team fought hard.

O'BRIEN: You're tearing up.


CASTRO: I'm proud of us.

O'BRIEN: You're proud? Congratulations. You've been fun to follow. No crying. No crying.

(Voice-over): For Maria and her team, it's time to pack up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Looking at first and second. A tied score. Now 70 seconds remaining. Looking for second. Ten seconds remaining. They're going up.

O'BRIEN: The winning team is made up of student from California and Indiana. They come from schools in mostly middle class communities.

CASTRO: Regardless of whether we won our lost, our team is a lot stronger as a whole. And I think everybody has matured a lot more. You know? Including myself.

KAMEN: These kids at the end of one season are permanently changed. What these kids are building is self-respect, self-confidence. What they're building is an understanding that in the real world, being smart is really cool. It's really important. It's really accessible. It can lead them to career options that they never thought about.


O'BRIEN (on camera): And it's all shaped like a robot.

KAMEN: The robot is a way to make it fun. But these kids walk away saying, I can do that.

WHITED: There are probably several kids but I will never know, but because of the stuff our team did, they will end up creating a career in engineering and they wouldn't have done it if they wouldn't have had a chance on the robotics team that we started.