When the robotics team at Clairton High School outside of Pittsburgh earned the chance to compete at a national level after winning the Western Pennsylvania championship last month, their main concern was whether they could afford to go. The question of how the team of five would make it to the National BotsIQ Competition, held May 17-19 in Indianapolis, was one that many other competing teams never had to ask themselves.

“It’s a little bit disheartening that some schools have all sorts of resources available to them and we have to work for it,” said Clairton robotics team member Amanda Gillespie.  “But in another way, it’s a good thing because in life you have to work for things.” Gillespie is a senior at the high school, and has been involved in other Hive youth programming.

Clairton is one of the state’s smallest and poorest school districts, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and could not afford the trip—about $4,000 for lodging, food, transportation, and other competition fees. They also needed around $1,000 extra to buy spare parts for their fighting robots but their fundraising had stalled until an article ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette detailing their financial situation.

“It’s amazing the support that we’ve seen,” industrial arts teacher at Clairton and Robotics Club sponsor Dennis Beard told the Post-Gazette.

More than 100 strangers, some from as far away as California, donated an amazing $58,000 to the Clairton Robotics Club’s cause. This kind of outpouring shows how important STEM is to people and companies, and not only in Pittsburgh.

Less than a month ago, the Chrysler Foundation provided nearly $30,000 in grants to support 10 Michigan high school robotics teams that had qualified for the 2013 FIRST Robotics Competition. Meanwhile, a community organization in Dansville, KY donated to their local Wayland-Cohocton Robotics Team to cover next year’s operating expenses, which typically provide for new parts for the robots such as motors and gearboxes.

Parents, teachers, business owners, and others in communities across the country know how important it is that we prepare our students for STEM careers. As Mohammad Qayoumi, president of San Jose State University, wrote recently:

Over the next 10 years, 5 out of 8 new jobs and 8 out of 10 of the highest paying positions in the United States will be in careers related to science, technology, education, and math (STEM) subjects.

But in a decade the United States could face a shortage of one million STEM graduates. The nation’s economic vitality hangs in the balance.

And, as he wrote, “A major barrier to graduating more STEM majors is the way we teach these disciplines.”

The kinds of competitions and clubs like the students at Clairton enjoy are one way to hook students, but we need to do an equally good job of showing students that what they learn in a robotics class translates directly back to algebra or geometry or computer science. Making that connection is a key element of a new “connected learning” movement. In this working theory, the key is to start with teens’ interests, focus on production-centered activities, and provide them with strong mentors and adults who can help them make the critical links from what they’re tinkering with and what happens in school (or even later in the workforce). At the center is the internet and digital media tools that boost the ability of teens to share their work and learn from and connect with others.

Meanwhile, the Clairton team made it to the quarterfinals this past weekend before being knocked off. A big congratulations is in order. We know they’ll be back next year.