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An army of robots descends on Capitol Hill (well, kinda)

From NBC's Shawna Thomas and Carrie Dann
A policy goal of one member of the United States Senate got a boost this afternoon from one nearly-universal fact about modern American culture:

Almost everyone thinks robots are way cool.

Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) was aided by a small army of robots (and by the teams of students who built them) on Monday in unveiling legislation to help high schoolers gain more access to programs furthering science, technology, engineering and math education.

In a presentation tied to the legislation’s introduction, student participants in a national robotics competition called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) exhibited their remote-controlled creations in a hearing room normally reserved for decorous Senate hearings on military issues.

Luckily for humanity's side in a hypothetical apocalyptic man vs. machine science-fiction scenario, these teenage-engineered robots were at least more Johnny 5 than Cylon.

Shaheen, a former teacher herself, used the event to stress the point that "traditional teaching methods don't appeal to a lot of these students."

The Innovation Inspiration School Grant Program she has proposed would create a public/private partnership by encouraging school districts to find businesses that will match federal funds and provide math and science industry mentors. 

The New Hampshire Democrat is hoping the program will be included in the reauthorization of the early and secondary education act later this year. 

But while Shaheen described the legislation as providing "new incentives and resources for our schools to think outside the box," it's hard to divorce the announcement itself from the timing.

On a week when government spending is in the forefront of the news and the House GOP's 2011 continuing resolution cuts $4.9 billion from current Education Department spending,  it's difficult to see on paper how proposals for new spending are going to fare. Also, conspicuously absent from the list of cosponsors is anyone's name with an "R" next to it. 

Still, participants in the FIRST program say that while “playing with robots” sounds like a taunt directed at the lovable pocket-protected high school nerd character in a John Hughes movie, technology education initiatives have some serious benefits.

Tavon Johnson, a 16-year-old student at Willow High School, said his mother first talked him into learning about robots but that he plans to keep participating when he goes to college.  "I believe FIRST is important because it teaches students science and technology," said Johnson.  "When I first began I didn't know too much about tools, too much about measurements and now FIRST has really changed me."

Because FIRST is an extracurricular activity, others say, programs like this one can answer the question of what kids are doing after school.  "It does not happen during school hours," said 17-year-old Jade Womack of George Mason High School.  “There are six weeks where you are allowed to build a robot and so I usually expect that if I come to school at 7am, I'm leaving school at 7pm. It's a lot of time and commitment."