March Madness may be starting this week, but basketball players aren’t the only competitors with their eyes on the big championship. Around the country, high school teams are now testing their wits in the annual clash of robots that gives science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students a chance to put their learning into practice.   

I’ve been honored this year to mentor Sab-BOT-age, a FIRST® Robotics Competition team made up of students from across Chester County, PA. The students had six short weeks to design and build their custom robot, and over the coming weekends, they’ll be putting it to the test in live competition, with the hopes of qualifying for the global championship in April.

The FIRST® Robotics Competition is the nation’s premier STEM competition for high school students and it is one of the best ways to show young people how studying math and science can translate into a lifetime of fulfilling work.

Each year, the FIRST® Robotics Competition kicks off in January with a challenge issued to teams across the country. The challenge lays out the tasks that the robots will be expected to perform, but building and programming the robots is left entirely up to the students. This year’s design challenge – FIRST STRONGHOLD – is a doozy. It requires teams to build a robot capable of competing in a complex strategy game that involves a range of activities from throwing boulders (foam ones), to opening gates, to scaling walls and breaching castle-like defenses.

What makes all of this so valuable is that STEM jobs are growing faster than we can fill them. STEM Connector estimates that by 2018 there will be 8 million STEM jobs in the United States alone, but as many as 3 million of those could go unfilled because there just aren’t enough technologists and engineers available to do the work.

We need high-school-age and younger students to not only study STEM subjects, but also to get excited about how they can use that knowledge to build and operate the technology of the future.

That’s why we are so proud to be able to participate in the FIRST® Robotics Competition. This year, Comcast NBCUniversal is sponsoring 39 teams, and more than 100 employees are mentoring about 1,000 students across the country. FIRST estimates that students who participate in the competition are more than twice as likely as their peers to pursue a college degree in STEM.

In addition, we’re now reviewing submissions for the FIRST Media & Technology Innovation Award, which Comcast NBCUniversal awards each year at the FIRST Championship for the best student-created digital marketing strategy in support of their FIRST teams.

In addition to the work we’re doing with FIRST, I’ve also had the opportunity to build an amazing relationship with the Downingtown STEM Academy, one of Pennsylvania’s best public high schools, and home to many of our team Sab-BOT-age members. This summer, we’ll host the second year of our Career Exploration program, where we bring members of the junior class to Comcast, to experience STEM careers in action.

After they’re done building robots and studying STEM, we’re hoping that some of these future technology leaders join us in building what’s next at Comcast and NBCUniversal.