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Blowing Things Up: In Praise of a Pyrotechnical Education

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Somewhere, far beyond the jurisdiction of the U.S. DHS and the BATF, several young scientist-friends recently joined me with bottles of chemicals as they had many times before. We were engrossed in making homemade fireworks. That night, the folded paper-pouches and stuffed-tubes we made roared cacophonously with widely spread bursts of flashes and flame.

We moved ever closer to the awe and thunder... the danger and fire. Homemade thermite scorched and blinded at 4,000 degrees (F). Air lingered with sweet clouds of nostalgia... memories of the smells of decades and even tons of fireworks blown by. We deeply inhaled breaths of burnt paper, spent powder, and fumes of miscellaneous toxicity.

I recall the episode as more than a fond "remembrance of things blast." We were renewing our primal passion for scientific discovery through "shock and awe." The sciences, and especially our dwindling supply of home-grown researchers and engineers, require recapturing a culture where experimentation and even blowing things up is still possible in America.

A few years ago, I questioned a large number of scientists working for the Office of Naval Research on critical projects for our nation's security. In this room full of doctorates and inventors I asked, "How many of you hold a patent or have been closely involved with one?" Most of the several hundred scientists here raised their hands.

I wondered what gave them the "permission" to invent. "Since this place is clearly full of inventors," I wondered, "how many of you blew stuff up when you were kids?" Nearly every hand in that audience -- an audience filled with the nation's leading innovators -- shot up.

My father was a chemist and patent attorney and we grew up in a home filled with chemicals and inventions. At an early age, we would invent stuff and my brother and I got a patent or two. Decades later, we are still playing and inventing. As kids, we stained the floors with a brown-yellow chemical paste: harmless when wet but, when dry, exploded with a fierce BANG at the slightest touch. The chemistry set was my proudest possession and it was kept fully stocked and ready for action. There were test tubes, beakers, condensers plus a transformer for electroplating and for releasing hydrogen and oxygen from water.

Experimenting as kids, my brother scorched the ping pong table and burned through concrete in the backyard. At 10, I "blew up" a lake, with the help of 5 gallon can of Coleman fuel. The small fire I caused during an invisible-ink experiment destroyed our kitchen. (That put my chemistry set on hold for a few weeks.) Thankfully for us, my Dad, in some youthful experiments of his own, actually burned down their entire house and family business. Fortunately, his example afforded me some degree of understanding in my smoldering home.

Later, at the Bronx High School of Science, my classmates swiped prodigious amounts of chemicals to conduct tests that far exceeded the official curriculum. A blast from a small chunk of sodium dashed in water kept students paying attention in chemistry class for an entire semester. Our biology department even had a nuclear-irradiation machine which I used without supervision to expose hundreds of innocent lima beans to destructive gamma rays. Playing with nukes in high school, ah, such memories!

The gamma-irradiator has long departed Bronx Science. (Perhaps that's not such a bad thing.) The schools' chemicals, I have been assured, are now stringently under lock and key. If high school students across the country mention "homemade fireworks," or contemplate making some, today they face certain suspension and expulsion. Youngsters no longer can buy chemistry sets: nobody makes them anymore.

As a technologist, I get to visit research labs, meet inventors, and show off the latest and coolest innovations. I've been asking these inventors the same set of questions: Did you grow up with a chemistry set? Did you take radios apart as a kid? Did you blow things up? Learn how to weld? Use a lathe? A milling machine? Of course they did, almost all of them!

I'm not suggesting we raise a nation of pyromaniacs. But youthful experimentation is a prerequisite to innovation... to giving kids "license to think outside the box."

A report by the American Electronics Association concluded that "regrettably, the American K-12 system is failing to provide the math and science skills necessary for kids to compete in the 21st century workforce." They warned us that "the U.S. higher education system cannot produce enough scientists and engineers to support the growth of the high-tech industry that is so crucial to economic prosperity."

Math and science scores for 12th graders continue to decline, with less than 20 percent of high school graduates showing proficiency in science. A similar trend emerges when comparing US students to their international counterparts: our 12th graders score at the bottom in math, science and particularly in physics, ranking last among the 16 countries participating.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, American youth spend more time watching television than they spend in school. Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of General Electric, once described the problem this way: "If you want good manufacturing jobs, one thing you could do is graduate more engineers. We had more sports exercise majors graduate than electrical engineering grads last year." The number of American-born engineers continues to precipitously decline.

The nations' top scientists and educators reported in "Rising Above The Gathering Storm," that a host of countries were ferociously investing in scientific research and development and are catching up with the United States. This landmark report concludes:

"For a century, many in the United States took for granted that most great inventions would be homegrown -- such as electric power, the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane -- and would be commercialized here as well. But we are less certain today who will create the next generation of innovations, or even what they will be. We know that we need a more secure Internet, more-efficient transportation, new cures for disease, and clean, affordable, and reliable sources of energy. But who will dream them up, who will get the jobs they create, and who will profit from them?"

Well, it's true: factories have moved to countries far away. Do students in America really need how to use a lathe or a milling machine? Why make a chisel by hand if you can buy one in a store for $1.50? Soldering irons can burn you. Spot welders, you betcha. You can take an eye out with this thing or that. Protect our children from themselves!

But what we've actually done is create an entire generation of young adults who don't know how to weld, solder, fabricate, design, measure, create, tinker, or play. They don't know what the inside of a radio looks like because it's just cheaper to buy another imported one than to fix the old one. How can you design the products of tomorrow... create the innovations that will keep the country advancing... if you don't learn how to make anything? I'm also suggesting that our litigious, liability-adverse nation has hobbled our children's ability to learn how to innovate.

Central to the "American Idea" is our burning desire to innovate. Yet America no longer knows how to celebrate inventors or give "invention licenses" to the new crop of teenagers coming up. More than any issue, our failure to prepare a next generation for innovation stabs at the heart of true homeland security.

There's so much talk today about the "exporting of America." We have a world economy with world markets, ferocious competition, and production cycles that increase in speed exponentially. Instead of preserving the last economy, we must prepare our kids to lead this new economy. The solution is not to wall ourselves off but to insure that our teens have the tools, the training, to be the innovators to make and sell the new stuff to these new markets. The Radio Shack down the block no longer has parts to put together...except a buzzer or two... and sells cheap phones made in Asia instead.

Are America's teens too late to stem a decline in scientific and technical leadership? Will they be able to maintain the technological edge that has provided America's extraordinary standard of living? Can they sustain a culture of innovation and scientific prowess that has given this nation the military and economic supremacy it has enjoyed for more than a century? Perhaps there is hope, but not if they continue to march down the path we have carved out for them.

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For several years I mentored high school robotics teams, working with the FIRST organization. In fact, the brilliant and relentless inventor Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, talked me into it (like he has with literally thousands of volunteers.) Happily, I then talked my family and friends into mentoring teams as well and my converts have been far more successful than I have been in guiding kids to build robots. Last week, at New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center, dozens of high schools competed with a field of ball-gathering and tossing robots... and the competition captivated thousands of students in attendance. (The national championship will be held in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome April 16-18th.)

Dean Kamen, of course, is our modern-day Thomas Edison, but agrees that his greatest idea (with MIT engineering legend Dr. Woodie Flowers) is the FIRST organization. They managed to find a way transform a culture by linking mentors to teens. Today, more than a thousand high schools around the world have robotics teams, and FIRST continues to grow.

Building robots is fun but it is hardly the point. Robots are just a fascinating focal point for learning science and engineering skills: robots must be designed, fabricated, programmed, coordinated, and collaborated upon. There is brilliant strategy involved in these team competitions, and students learn from mentors about tools, design programs, project management, and especially, gracious professionalism and cooperation.

Yet working with FIRST teams (and having been "Principal-for-a-Day" for four years at two New York specialty science high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science) has given me some troubling insights as well. In New York City schools, and in schools across the country, machine shops... metal and wood-working shops... continue being removed. Precious tools and expertise are still denied to students. "We figured we'd put in computers, instead," one principal told me.

Scared of lawsuits and liability, many educators contend that manufacturing skills are no longer needed. In one school I worked with, an enormous milling machine was actually stolen and not reported missing for about three years. Five years later, it still has not been replaced.

I don't think "doom and gloom" is an accurate prediction of the future of American technology: optimism is at the soul of American innovation. Nearly a dozen successful television shows that cater to the "How It's Made" crowd signal a resurgence of public interest in science and technology. President Obama is significantly reinvesting in basic science research and plans to rejuvenate our frail technology infrastructure. Unleashing the power of America's research and development potential has increasingly become a popular and unifying cause in Congress and even in some corporate boardrooms.

Despite tough economic times and cutbacks, Google still seems committed to stimulate innovation by allowing select employees to devote 20% of their work time to un-directed research. Many at Google believe this freedom to explore directly resulted in the most exciting and profitable innovation emerging from their Mountain View campus. Beyond Google, American corporations need to figure out how to replicate this excitement and openness in stimulating creativity.

Risky? Sure. There is no reward without risk and innovation abhors complacency. But we have become worse than complacent: we have removed springboards for our next generation of engineers, chemists, and inventors to jump into the game and lead America and the world.

Here's some ideas that may insure our teens will be the innovators of tomorrow:

• Grow talent: have your high-tech company mentor a FIRST Robotics team, for example
• Reward innovation: As a nation we must celebrate inventors
• Inspire innovation with challenges (like the DARPA race) and access to technology
• Keep America a friendly place for foreign scientists and researchers to study and innovate so they'll stay and grow our innovative infrastructure
• Give innovators more time to play and focus on their own quests (i.e., the Google model.)

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When I saw all those scientists and innovators raising their hands, proudly admitting it was their need to experiment and even "to blow things up" that set them free to invent... it was an epiphany. After 30 years slogging away in the TV biz, these innovators inspired me "to blow things up" in my own life. I formed my own company, called, naturally, "Blowing Things Up," where I find and connect cutting-edge, disruptive technology to American companies. (WIth the Hourglass Initiative, I also work with scientists to create codes of ethics and web-based tools to expose those proliferating WMD technologies.)

But in a greater sense, we must continue to inspire innovation and invention; we must recapture our ability to turn these ideas into usable products here: Americans invented the CD, television, fax machines, cell phones, but reasonable people would think they were developed instead in the Pacific Rim, where people worked tenaciously to bring these innovations to market.

Like it or not, welcome to the new environment: adapt or die. Technology is cycling so quickly, expertise will be redefined: not by what you know but how fast you think; how quickly you can process data; to find broad connections then turn it into something that you can market the hell out of. The only downside is we'll probably need more fire extinguishers as our kids set their kitchens and ping pong tables on fire... but it's all for a good cause. True "Homeland Security" means letting our kids know they can, and must, experiment, discover, and, sometimes blow things up.