Turning Scientists into Heroes
Dean Kamen is an American scientist and inventor whose products include the Segway human transporter (HT) and the iBOT battery-powered wheelchair. His inventions include medical devices and futuristic gizmos that Kamen hopes will revolutionize the way we live and travel.
In 1989, Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics competition for high school students. In 2007, it held 37 competitions in countries such as Israel, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.
Kamen is the President of DEKA Research and Development.
Kamen was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1997 for his biomedical devices and for making engineering more popular among high school students. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2000 by then President Clinton for inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide. In 2002, Kamen was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventors, for his invention of the Segway and of an infusion pump for diabetics. In 2005 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the AutoSyringe. In 2006 Kamen was awarded the Global Humanitarian Action Award by the United Nations.
Question: How have you helped turn scientists into heroes?
Dean Kamen: Well, about 18 years ago, we [Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers] started a not for profit called FIRST, which is an acronym, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The theory at the time, and even more so today, was that despite popular opinion to the contrary, most kids really are scientists. They really love to discover new things, check their theories out, poke at the world, see what happens.
But we have a society that does a couple of things that I think are constantly gnawing away at kid’s perspective on Science and Technology. Number 1, we have created in this media-driven culture of ours an obsession with two places from which we created all the role models - the world of sports and the world of entertainment. The NBA, the NFL and the Hollywood are all there are. All the role models seem to come from on television, billboards, newspapers, magazines, nonstop.
Second thing we do is we turn science and engineering from a curiosity-based activity to something that gets judged, something that gets measured. Kids are intimidated by the way science and technology is presented. It’s made, frankly, quite boring and it becomes part of a curriculum that chases particularly women and minorities away.
So 18 years ago, we decided that while other people interested in the problem of how we are going to get more kids in our pipeline, how are we going to stimulate the next generation of scientists and engineers and those other people whether they’re governments, teachers, not for profits foundations, all focus and to stay focus on things. On the supply side of the education crisis, they all want more teachers, more standards, more books, more tests, more you name it.
We said, let’s take the contrarian view that the reason so few kids are doing well in math and science, or even choosing to study it all in this country, is not in fact an educational crisis and it’s not about a limitation on supply. We took the contrarian position that science and technology simply aren’t presented as being fun and exciting. We took the position and it’s not a supply problem at all, it’s a demand problem or a lack of it among kids. And we took the position, it’s not an education problem, it’s a culture problem.
In the culture of America, in a free culture, you get what you celebrate. And in this culture, we have two obsessions, become a group that becomes a group that celebrates sports heroes and entertainment heroes. There’s no room left for kids to see even a little bit of the opportunities to really, really get excited about becoming an inventor, an engineer, or a scientist, a problem solver so we formed an organization, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Notice the name? It is not for profit. It doesn’t have the word education in it. We’re not an education foundation. We are for inspiring kids and having them recognize science and technology really are accessible, they really are fun, they really are rewarding and they really are the places where career opportunities abound.
Most kids today that will dribble a ball hour after hour dreaming of being the next Shaquille O’Neal, most of these kids have virtually have no chance of ever making a career in professional sports. But any kid that is willing to spend any reasonable number of hours a day, or even for a week studying math, studying physics, studying engineering, studying science can have literally an unbound set of opportunities for careers in science and technology. But, they don’t know it and our culture works on it preventing them from knowing either how much fun it is, how rewarding it is or how accessible it is going to be.
So FIRST is about changing kids’ perspective, particularly women and minorities, and frankly, changing the perspective of our society and their culture, about what’s important.
Conducted on: June 9, 2009.
Inventor Dean Kamen calls on us to inspire children to be engineers and problem-solvers, not the next NBA or Hollywood star.
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