Is my 12-year-old son a future engineer or builder? That's been a thought of mine for a few years now, and for good reason. Let's see, there's the complete obsession and mastery of an untold number of increasingly complicated Legos. The complete fascination with the Discovery and Science channels, especially shows dealing with science, construction or, honestly, destruction. (See "Destroyed in Seconds.") A seemingly ceaseless list of things he plans to invent one day, including, among many others, a perpetual motion machine powered by magnets that produces a steady stream of electricity

Truthfully, science and engineering is running through Mark's brain at nearly all hours. A few times, while on a long ride somewhere, I've listened for miles on end to a seemingly never-ending stream of highly detailed descriptions of his many future creations. (What may otherwise be described as "ideas" seem more like items on a future to-do list, coming from Mark.) "Wouldn't it be neat..." is a common start to many of Mark's roadway monologues. Still, it's hard to tell sometimes with kids. An obsession can become an afterthought a few years down the road.

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My son, Mark (left), and his buddy and teammate, Jared, shortly after taking first place in a recent Lego Robotics challenge. The challenge was the culmination of a week-long robotics camp held at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. It was  partly funded by the National Science Foundation. The robots they hold are merely souvenirs of their week at the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center at HCC. They are not the robots they programmed.

Still, there have been signs along the way. For instance, during a Meet-the-Teacher for third grade, Mark's teacher asked him what was his favorite subject. Without flinching, and looking her straight in the eye ever so seriously, he said, "Building." To her credit, she smiled, and then very courteously reworded the question. That was cute. (While chatting with a South Florida construction association executive once shortly thereafter, I recounted the tale to him. "Oh, that'll pass," he said.)

A couple of years later, he won a Lego competition, earning a $50 savings bond in the process. And that was sure fun - especially when I saw the older kids come over and check out Mark's creation, as the judging was still taking place, and giving each other that knowing nod of being surprisingly impressed. A few minutes later: "First place - Mark Judy." Like I said, that was fun.

But the situation has started to become a little more serious lately. That's because of his most recent accomplishment. This time, he and his friend, Jared, won first place in the "final challenge" of a week-long Lego Robotics camp they attended this summer, sponsored by the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center  at Hillsborough Community College. (For more information, see a recent article by the St. Petersburg Times here.)

Partly funded by the National Science Foundation, the camp was open to 20 middle-school students in the Hillsborough County area. Each day, the campers would learn how to program a Lego Mindstorms robotic unit to perform a certain task and maneuver itself through a mini obstacle course. Tasks included making turns at certain intervals, and then progressed up to using sound and visual sensors built into the robot to maneuver. Each day, the campers would compete on the course, with one team being declared the winner of that challenge.

On the final day, all of the previous courses were put together into a four-part obstacle course for the final challenge. I'll spare the further details, but leave it that Mark and Jared won this final, overall challenge, with two of their three runs through the course earning them the full 100 points possible. (I.e., they were perfect!)

Like I said, the situation is becoming more serious for me, as a parent. A week-long science camp, in a college setting. Performing well and earning some high praise from the college instructors. This may not become an afterthought, after all. I'll put it this way -- things have officially progressed from "cute" to "fun" to now "cool!" (That's right - engineering is "cool!")

So what do I do? How far and hard do I push (i.e., guide) him to become what I think he's going to want to become? You hear all the time about how kids in the United States aren't interested in studying science; engineering and construction especially. So what are a parent's responsibilities when their child shows interest and aptitude for such endeavors? Do those parents bear a special responsibility--to their country?--that these children are encouraged in the proper direction? And what does one do when they're an editor for an industry publication that reports on the challenges facing tomorrow's workforce, and the many heroic efforts to build and maintain that workforce?

As I do when traveling down the road with him, I think I'll just keep listening to Mark, and encouraging his interests, however they pan out from here. It seems to be working out alright so far. He'll probably let me know what I need to do.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your comments about this. I know people out there have to have some thoughts about this. Let me hear from you!