On the third floor of TVA's downtown Chattanooga office Tuesday morning, 16-year-old Taylor Jones peered into a laptop monitor, rotated a joystick and snapped his thumb onto a button.
A wireless router sent a signal to Jones' chrome, waist-high robot. At the base of the robot, compressed air pushed a piston, a piston pushed a cylinder, and a cylinder tipped a Frisbee toward the robot's two spinning wheels. Once there, at the spinning wheels, the Frisbee flung outward, first through the mouth of the robot, then toward a wall and an opening at the top of a wood structure, about 10 feet high.
Jones and his Scottsboro, Ala., High School classmate, 16-year-old Will Reece, repeated the process: look, aim, click. Jones, Reece and Reece's little sister, Sarajane -- the Jackson Redneck Robots -- represented one of about 29 schools from Tennessee and Alabama at the TVA complex on Tuesday morning. The students were there to show the utility's engineers what they have accomplished with TVA-backed robotics programs this school year.
As Jones and Will Reece repeated the looking and aiming and clicking, the Frisbees too repeated. A red one. Whoosh. A blue one. Whoosh. A white one. Whoosh. One after another after another. Whoosh whoosh whoosh.
TVA began to support robotics programs in schools about 10 years ago after senior adviser Charles Spencer saw the Battle Academy for Teaching and Learning run its own program. TVA gives schools money to buy robotics kits and encourages its employees to volunteer as mentors.
The program starts with simple LEGO robotics aimed at second-graders, and it runs through high school. At the upper levels, students build more complex robots that perform more impressive tasks, such as the one controlled by Jones and the Reece sibings.
TVA encourages children to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, and this program serves as the bait.
"It's natural," Spencer said. "What kid doesn't like to play with LEGOs? What kid doesn't like to play with computers? Put them together, and you've really got something."
This program, and many similar ones across the country, are aimed at producing more adults ready to work in the STEM fields. The United States needs it.
By 2018, there will be about 8.6 million STEM-related jobs in this country, according to STEMconnector, a website tracking developments in these fields. That's about 1 million more jobs than are available today.
Experts say U.S. schools don't prepare enough students to fill these future needs.
The United States' math and science education systems rank 47th out of 144 countries, according to the latest Global Competitiveness Report. When they start high school, about 1 million freshmen are interested in the STEM fields. Four years later, that number shrinks to about 400,000.
In 2008, about 5 million students earned science and engineering degrees, according to the National Science Board. About 500,000 of those students were from the United States -- half as many as those from China and the European Union.
But none of those figures is necessary to understanding the country's poor STEM education. All you need to do, Spencer said, is consider a simple equation. Many college graduates can't find jobs. Many employers looking to fill STEM positions can't find qualified graduates.
In other words, the country needs more graduates from STEM fields.
"It's obvious," Spencer said.
The TVA hopes Tuesday morning's showcase is evidence of a new wave of students. While high schoolers showed off on the third floor, teams of elementary and middle school students presented their LEGO robots on the first floor. Their toys glided forward and changed directions. They rolled miniature balls at miniature bowling pins. They climbed inches-high ramps.
And back on the third floor, high school students met TVA employees. At the end of the morning, some talked about their futures. Jones hopes to become some kind of engineer. Will Reece does, too.
Sarajane Reece, 14, wants to be a veterinarian. Girls her age are about 25 percent less likely to be interested in the STEM fields, according to STEMconnector. But she joined the team after watching her brother perform at the FIRST Robotics Competition regional in Knoxville last year.
"It just looked really cool," she said. "You get to meet so many people."
The team did OK then, but this year's squad was better. Out of 50 teams, they finished second.