Last Wednesday at IBM’s Innovate Conference, I had the opportunity to catch Dean Kamen’s inspirational keynote on the life changing (and saving) inventions he has pioneered at DEKA, as well as his mission to inspire future generations of engineers, scientists and technologists via his FIRST program.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Sciences and Technology) is an annual robotics competition for students of all ages, starting with Lego Leagues for elementary school students and progressing in materials, skills and complexity from middle school to collegiate levels.
Kamen shared that his purpose in speaking at Innovate was self-serving. He is seeking mentors and support for the FIRST program. An article on Kamen, entitled Mr. Segway’s Difficult Path, is featured in the Economist’s current Technology Quarterly:
“Their answer, Mr Kamen hopes, will name-check FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a glitzy robotics competition that he started in 1989 and which now attracts over 200,000 entrants annually from schools in 56 countries. Working in teams supervised by a professional scientist or engineer, children construct and control robots in a series of competitive challenges, egged on by cheerleaders, screaming parents and the prospect of scholarships worth $12.2m in 2010 alone.
If that all sounds suspiciously similar to American high-school sports, it is no accident. “I want kids to realise that engineering and problem solving are every bit as fun and rewarding as bounce, bounce, bounce, throw,” says Mr Kamen. “I want FIRST to compete with the Superbowl, the World Series and the Olympics. The next generation of real wealth is going to be produced in fields like proteomics, genomics and nanotechnology. For that you need world-class technology people, and if kids don’t get on the train very early, it’s left the station.””
The article concludes with Kamen’s vision of his robotics competitors:
“Which brings him back to FIRST, the invention of which Mr Kamen is most proud. “It really is an invention because it was a different way to attack a fundamental social problem,” he says. “For any one product I worked on, if I didn’t do it, someone else would have. Maybe they would have done it a little later, or a little differently, but they would have done it. But when I look out in the stands at tens of thousands of kids each year during FIRST, I see all the scientists that are going to work on the really exciting stuff that’s going to happen over the next 15 years. They will be making materials that have no resistance and can carry millions of amps, creating materials that can make, store and transform energy, understanding how to build at a molecular level to synthesise proteins and fix health problems, literally by engineering life.””
If you have an engineering, science or technology background, or curious children, consider getting involved in FIRST.
For more on Kamen’s work, check out his visits to the Steven Colbert Show.