Making Learning a FIRST Priority

-August 10, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas – Entering on his created Segway human transport system, DEKA Research President and industry legend Dean Kamen took the stage this morning to close NI Week, sending the audience a chilling message, one of the desperate need for a cultural change in the United States.

Kamen’s point was blunt: There isn’t a lack of supply for education in this country, as many in the industry and education have often preached, there’s a lack of demand for it.

Kamen believes that America celebrates sports more than innovation, a big flaw in the culture that has lead us to focus less on creating and more on “nonsense.” With that belief, Kamen started FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a multinational competition that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem with the goal of encouraging a next generation of inventors.

“By the time kids are teenagers, especially if they are a minority, they want to bounce a ball like Shaquille O'Neal, not go into science,” he said, noting that while the United States produces 72,000 engineer graduates a year, it produces 84,000 graduates with sports management degrees. “That tells you that if the world is going to compete in anything that gives out hot towels, [the U.S.] is going to win,” he quipped.

During the Clinton administration, Kamen went so far as to take this message to the Oval Office, advising the President to invite the teenagers who win the FIRST robotics competitions to the White House, just as winners of the World Series and Super Bowl are often invited. To Kamen’s delight, Clinton agreed and celebrated these winners nearly every year of his term after their first meeting.

“The issue among kids, particularly in wealthy western societies where they should have the time, energy and passion to learn technology, is that they never learn. They are distracted by nonsense [like videogames]. The developing world has figured out that the key to quality of life is education and they are screaming in that direction,” the inventor said.

Kamen’s message echoed sentiments from a NI Week panel on math and science education Wednesday, which noted the roadblocks in the way of better technology education, specifically engineering education, in U.S. school systems.

Kamen today looked beyond the United States to global society, saying he would like to see the current billion teenagers in the world educated and bucked any thoughts that Americans have a “birthright” to a certain quality of life while others live in poverty. “Taking down fences” put up between nations, as he described, will be what leads to a better life across the globe.

“Do we really want to have a billion uneducated people out there? That’s not the way to win, to say, let’s keep everyone else down. That might work in sports, but in the real world, I think we shouldn’t be racing with each other to the bottom, we should be working with each other to race to the top,” Kamen said. “I’d like a billion kids getting educated. They will bring us great things.”

FIRST hasn’t quite reach a billion members, but it has significantly grown from its start in 1989. With more than 70,000 young people engaged in 1,333 teams from North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa and support from 25,000 volunteer mentors and several Fortune 500 companies, FIRST held 33 regional competitions last year in the United States, Canada and Israel. Kamen was particularly proud of the fact that 38 percent of FIRST participants are women or minorities, groups that indisputably have lower entrance rates into science and math fields.

“Everyone is complaining about supply – we don’t have enough teachers, enough books, more, more, more is the American way. If you look at it, it’s not a supply issue. We have $600 billion going into education, which is more than most of the rest of the developed world. It’s not supply, it’s demand, the lack of it. And it’s not an education problem, this is a cultural problem, you get what you celebrate,” Kamen said.

Kamen closed his keynote this morning by reminding attendees that he is not a professional speaker. “I do these things to promote FIRST,” he said. “And I am desperately in need of more engineers.”

For more information on volunteering for FIRST, see:

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