ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Michigan has the country's highest unemployment rate, and it lost more than 74,000 jobs in the last year. But here is one area where the state is succeeding: school robotics competitions. At a national championship in Atlanta this week, teams from Michigan high schools and middle schools are dominating.
Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting went to the competition to find out why.
SUSANNA CAPELOUTO (Georgia Public Broadcasting): Being a nerd is cool at Zeeland West High School in Michigan. Just asd senior Stewart Alzinger(ph), he drives the school's robot.
Mr. STEWART AlZINGER (Student, Zeeland West High School, Michigan): We're pretty successful so a lot of people will think it's cool. It's not like being on the football team, because our football team has won one game in the last three years. We have brought more trophies back in school than any athletic team at our school.
CAPELOUTO: Alzinger's team is called BOB, short for Build On Brains. It's one of 46 robotic teams from Michigan at this week's first competition. The state has the largest representation. fielding one-eighth of all U.S. teams.
Unidentified Man: Teams ready. Three, two, one - go.
(Soundbite of horn)
CAPELOUTO: Robots here at the Georgia dome look like five-foot-tall praying mantises on wheels. They race around the track in bumper car fashion. For two minutes, they pick up and push around 40-inch balls all by remote control. There's a lot of mechanics involved, and it's no surprise - Michigan dominates.
Mr. SCOTT MULLEN (Technical Training Manager, Chrysler): It's the auto industry investing for the future. That's what it is.
CAPELOUTO: Scott Mullen(ph) is a technical training manager at Chrysler. He mentors the Juggernauts, a team from Pontiac. The big three Detroit automakers all sponsored teams at this competition, and so do their suppliers. Mullen says the industry invests in the students even in bad economic times, because there aren't enough U.S.-born engineers.
Mr. MULLEN: One issue or one solution to the problem has been the importation, bringing in foreign nationals to be our engineers, and we want more and more local home-grown people. And this is one way to get people excited about coming into the engineering field.
CAPELOUTO: These high school teams have cult followings in Michigan, with fans showing up at competitions in painted faces. The excitement pleases Kevin Gaye(ph) who works for General Motors and mentors a team from Romulus, Michigan. He hopes these students will stay in the state once they graduate.
Mr. KEVIN GAYE (General Motors): Yeah, you need to have the kids, the smart people in your area, so that companies come to your area, so then you'll get your economy back.
CAPELOUTO: Stewart Alzinger's hometown of Zeeland has already been hit. Some supply companies have closed and he realizes that what he's learning now could save his community later.
Mr. ALZINGER: Everybody knows that we're - they're going to need us to come in and innovate more, and come up with new ideas because the world is changing, and this is what's going to drive the world.
CAPELOUTO: But for now, Alzinger has to drive his robot through the competition, and just being from Michigan raises his statistical odds. Teams from his state have won the national competition five of the last six years.
For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.
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