July/August 2010

FIRST: Where everyone can turn pro

By Dean Kamen

Science has always mattered to those of us old enough to realize how much we have achieved in a relatively short period of time. But are we creating a culture to ensure that we have captured the hearts and minds of the generations that follow? Will they come to know that science is really the language of discovery, learned through curiosity, imagination, and inspiration? In short, are we doing enough to make science cool?

Today, as technology is woven into the very fabric of our day-to-day lives in terms of our activities (smart phones, robotic surgery, social media) and our quality of life (stents, aqua and wind farming, robotic limbs), we know there is no way our society can continue to solve problems, realize opportunities, and shape the future without creating a culture that not only embraces science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but also celebrates how it will enable innovation for the myriad of new 21st century issues. So, how do we inject science with the cool factor?

Kids growing up today in an entirely media-driven culture are really at risk of missing the point: Sports and entertainment are not the cause of our wealth and success; they are the results of it all.

We need to connect the dots for today's kids who use that "really cool technology stuff" daily so they know where that future "stuff" will come from-the very creative scientific, engineering, and technological minds they have the ability to become.

We think we have an innovation crisis in the U.S., and that fixing some or all of the elements of the education "supply" side with more teachers, more computers, more standards, more tests, more college programs, and more start ups will solve the problem. My view is that we do not have an innovation or an education supply crisis; we have an innovation and educational "demand" crisis.

That is why I started FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) back in 1989. The real goal of FIRST is to change our culture by inspiring students and connecting them with adult mentors/coaches and heroes who have created the incredible advancements and quality of life we have today. Our FIRST mentor/coaches are the type of people whose eyes still light up when they hear about black holes, quantum physics, neural net theory, and even decoder rings from the 1950s! They are like you … and me.

At FIRST, we have managed to corral many of those uninhibited explorers of the unknown to create a groundswell of volunteers who can open up all the breathtaking vistas science can become to our kids. FIRST begets future scientists, engineers, and teachers, who in turn come back to the programs as mentors, advisors, volunteers … and the innovation cycle continues.

You see we have built in our own annuity stream to ensure the cool factor is maintained and grows. That is the FIRST secret sauce to inspiration … putting one generation's imagination to work to spark the next generation.

This past 2009/2010 season, more than 212,000 young people in 57 countries were assisted by over 90,000 volunteers. These professionals inspired students worldwide by serving as FIRST engineering mentors/coaches, tournament organizers, fund raisers, judges, referees, emcees, and the various other roles that it takes to make FIRST happen.

Our robotics events combine the high energy of a rock concert, the competitiveness and mascots of an NCAA final four competition, the intensity and technology of the NASCAR pits, the showmanship of a Broadway play, and our unique FIRST traditions starting with a spirit of "Gracious Professionalism."

FIRST transforms everyone it touches. As our Chairman of the FIRST Board, Walt Havenstein, the chief executive of SAIC, so aptly puts it: "This is the only sport I know where everyone can turn pro."

But we need more adult participation, and that is where you and the Automation Federation (AF) can help. As an individual, you can become a volunteer, a mentor/coach, or an enthusiastic spectator. As a company, you can supply resources and staff.

Visit www.usfirst.org to see if there is a robotics program in your neighborhood. Please consider becoming part of the secret sauce that brings inspiration and imagination to a generation of kids who will transform the world we know today into something better. And that's way cool.


Dean Kamen, who will deliver the keynote address at Automation Week on 5 October in Houston, is the founder of FIRST. He is an inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology whose inventions include the Segway Human Transporter.