Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research and Development Corporation, describes himself as “an inventor, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for science and technology.” He is also the founder of US FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Since 1992, FIRST has paired professional engineers with high school students to compete in annual robot competitions: spirited, no-holds-barred tournaments complete with referees, cheerleaders and time clocks.
Why is it important to excite students about math, science & technology?
We live in world where you need analytic skills to survive and do well. In the past, women did one kind of manual labor and men in blue collar jobs did another kind. These days almost any job that doesn’t require thinking has been either eliminated entirely by technology or replaced by a machine. The repetitive work that people used to do in factories is being done by machines or robots.
You look around the world and almost any job that’s worth having — that can earn serious money, that can be intellectually stimulating — requires a fairly sophisticated kind of thinking. That’s exciting in one sense because it means that people don’t have to look forward to jobs that are drudgery. It’s also scary in some cases, because if you don’t develop analytical skills, there aren’t too many jobs left for you.
But this is something that is important not just to individuals, but also to society.
In what way?
Young people with these skills will create things, whether it’s science, technology solutions, solutions to ecological problems, drugs that cure diseases or art. It’s good for society to have the benefit of creative minds that are always pushing for solutions to problems that raise the mutual and collective standard of living.
If students don’t develop these skills, they will become a drain, rather than a resource, to our culture and economy. They can’t develop the same standard of living that their parents had, or the improved standard of living that they expect to have. They are going to be disappointed, and our culture will reflect that.
So these are basic survival tools?
Yes, but there’s much more to it than that. Understanding science and engineering is like understanding the rules of the world around you. You can go to a football game and enjoy it, just because it’s a beautiful day, and the sun is shining, and you’re watching great athletes run around doing amazing things. But if you understand that game and the rules of it, you enjoy it a lot more.
Understanding the rules that nature put out here is like turning our world into a big playground. And it’s a more fun playground to be in when you get to appreciate its subtleties.
In a world that’s getting more technical all the time, I think that young people will enjoy life more when they can understand more of what’s going on. I also think that they will use that understanding to be creative.
I’m not sure I can describe to you what being creative is, or why you feel good when you’ve created something, but I just know it’s important. It’s exciting. You feel energized when you create something. I think it is a big deal to give students a set of skills and an analytic background that allows them to create things, to invent things.
What gave you the idea for US FIRST?
I saw children being so excited by being able to bounce and throw a ball. After working at it a while, they get good enough at it to get it in the basket. They see themselves improve and they like it.
They see coaches as nurturing, where they might see teachers as judgmental. They see sports as exciting, because we tell them they’re exciting. Even if they’re no good they’re nurtured, they’re not judged, per se.
Sports are an entertainment, a diversion. They’re an extracurricular thing, perceived as fun. I just looked at the whole model and asked, “Why can’t we create the same kind of enthusiasm and excitement for science and engineering and technology — that they are accessible, they’re fun, they’re rewarding?”
I decided to build around the sports model in every way — a double elimination tournament where students get to work together, where they get to enjoy the benefits of teamwork and camaraderie – all the things that make team sports work.
What kinds of things to you do to create that excitement?
If you want children to play football, you don’t show them other children in the backyard playing football. You show them the NFL.
You want to show children science and engineering? You don’t give them plastic paramecium on the folding table in the basement of the middle school. You show them scientists and engineers from major companies all over the country, and you show them that these engineers aren’t all old, bent, deranged looking white males with German accents out to blow up the world.
You show them women in entertainment and sports that are young – when are they going to see that there are women and there are minorities in engineering and science?
Here’s a 27-year-old woman who just figured out how to detect cancer early enough that next year maybe a million women won’t die of this or that. This 23-year-old minority person just invented something that’s going to go on cars and lessen pollution so that worldwide we’ll have a happier place for millions of people. That’s a big deal, that’s exciting stuff. That’s done by people, by young people. Who tells kids that? Who introduces them to these people?
They turn on television, and the only young and exciting people they see are athletes and movie stars. It’s wrong. So, I said, let’s use that model and show them the NFL, the NCAA of young, enthusiastic scientists and engineers. And we’ll let them participate with these people, so at the end they’ll say, “I want to do what this person does, I want to put my energy where that person puts energy. I want to be on a varsity team that has to do with thinking and problem solving and creating.”
Can you describe the competition?
It’s very simple. We pair up professional engineers with high school students. We give them a problem statement, a pile of parts, and they have six or seven weeks to turn that pile of junk into some operating machine that will go and compete in a very competitive athletic event — a robotic event — against other machines built by other high school students paired up with other professionals. Double elimination tournaments are held all over the country, and the finals are held at Disney’s Epcot Center. It’s enormously successful and exciting and fun.
Does the competition reach students that aren’t already interested in science and technology?
That’s what’s amazing – that’s exactly who it does reach. When the companies who provide the engineers are looking for a high school to team up with, we have them find a high school where they can make the biggest difference.
We give a major award every year, called the Chairman’s Award, to the company-high school partnership that most demonstrates the biggest impact. If it’s a company that’s adopted a school that’s mostly Advanced Placement Physics students that are trying to decide between Cal Tech and MIT, it’s hard to know that the effort had a really big influence and a big impact, whether their robot was good or bad. So the companies look for schools where the impact is very clear. We think we’re having an extraordinary impact in the right places.
If a teacher is interested in your competition, how can they contact you?
They should go to our Web site* and it will be apparent from there that there are many people at FIRST who will be really thrilled to send them stuff and get them involved.
Thank you very much.