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Robots Make Tech Cool

Inventor Dean Kamen on his Segway Human Transporter. Associated Press/Suzanne Plunkett
Inventor Dean Kamen on his Segway Human Transporter. Associated Press/Suzanne Plunkett

Most adults know Dean Kamen as the creator of the Segway Human Transporter. But tens of thousands of schoolchildren around the world know Kamen as the inventor of FIRST, a nonprofit organization that stages three worldwide robotics competitions. The purpose of these challenges is to teach teamwork and problem-solving skills while giving kids a close-up look at possible careers in engineering and science.

Research conducted by Brandeis University shows that FIRST alumni choose engineering careers seven times as often as other college students. Thirty-three percent of female FIRST alumnae, 27 percent of African-Americans, and 47 percent of Hispanic alumni report majoring in engineering, compared to national averages of two percent, five percent and six percent, respectively.

Kamen was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. He also holds more than 440 U.S. and international patents, mostly for medical devices, including a portable infusion pump, portable dialysis machine, and a sophisticated mobility device for the disabled.

During the academic year, more than 130,000 students participated in local qualifiers for FIRST.

Then more than 10,000 student finalists from 538 teams and 23 countries vied for titles in three divisions. During the annual FIRST Championship, held at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in mid-April, Kamen sat down with Scholastic Administr@tor to talk about the power of competition.

Scholastic Administra@tor: Why did you found FIRST?

Kamen: It’s an overabundance of distractions and nonsense that convinces kids that other things are easier, more fun, or more important than becoming seriously competent in science, technology, inventing, problem-solving, thinking, and analytics. And I say we have to break the general feeling that science and technology isn’t fun, isn’t cool, and isn’t accessible to women and minorities.

We formed FIRST in 1989. Notice the word “education” is not in the name; it sounds like a competition that makes kids say, “I want to be first.” And you look at the acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

SA: What do kids get out of competing?

Kamen: Whereas the NBA doesn’t have millions of jobs and Hollywood doesn’t have millions of jobs, the world of technology is unbounded. The opportunities are huge. Our goal was to form an organization whose aim is to change the culture, particularly among young women and minorities, to one in which they can embrace science and technology as serious options and to do it with the same intensity as they do in sports and entertainment.

So we’re sitting in the home of the 1996 Olympics doing the world’s ultimate sporting event for humans, because the only sport I can think of in which humans are in the unlimited class versus other animals is inventing and creating.

SA: What’s your opinion of the state of education in this country?

Kamen: I think the state of education is fine, but I would tell you kids have an enormous capacity to rise to the occasion, no matter how difficult you make the test, no matter how high you raise the bar. Just look at FIRST: They’ll exceed your expectations and their own expectations if they have the passion to do it. I think a little bit of passion is worth a whole lot of opportunity.

We have a massive educational system that’s sitting there, and if kids showed up as desperate to get a good education as to get on a varsity sports team, the whole complex of American culture would be radically better. We’re just trying to get those kids to try to leverage the educational system that we have. And, by the way, by doing it, we will be raising the bar. In doing it, the students will demand that the math teacher is really good. They fire the football coach who has a losing record but nothing happens to the [incompetent] math teacher.

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