Huffpost Science
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dean Kamen Headshot

FIRST Things First

Posted: Updated:

Imagine, if you will, a 70,000-seat arena packed with screaming fans. Cheerleaders and mascots roam through the crowd. On the field, the spectacle of competition is on full display. And at halftime, the Black Eyed Peas take the stage and perform.

Now imagine that this is not the Super Bowl, nor any professional sporting event. These are high schoolers, and the athletes on the field are robots.

This is not an episode of The Twilight Zone. This is FIRST.

***

About twenty years ago, I paid a visit to a small science museum I had founded across the street from DEKA, my research and development outfit in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was a holiday, and a rainy one at that, so the museum was more crowded than usual with kids and their parents.

Encouraged by this apparent interest in science and technology, I posed a question to the group of young scholars -- could one of them name a living scientist or inventor?

The group was silent.

I looked up and asked the parents the same question. More silence. Finally, one of the adults spoke up. "Einstein," he said. "But I think he's dead."

***

The National Academy of Engineering, the National Science Foundation, the leaders of top universities, and the president of the United States all agree: in order for our nation to remain economically competitive and technologically innovative, we must improve our national scholastic performance in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Students in the United States now rank 23rd in science and 31st in math out of 65 developed nations, and fewer and fewer scholars are going to universities to pursue STEM careers.

If America is to win the future of invention and discovery, we must first capture the minds and imaginations of young scientists and innovators.

Fifty years ago, such inspiration came from the president himself. On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of congress and pledged that the United States would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The following year, speaking on a hot summer's day at Rice University, Kennedy proclaimed, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." The gauntlet of technological achievement had been thrown to the American people. The nation accepted the challenge.

On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong's boots finally touched the lunar surface, the average age of a NASA engineer was just 26 years old. That means that when Kennedy inspired America with his speech before congress, these young engineers were only 18. As kids, they had been stirred by the dream of a New Frontier of technological exploration and advancement.

Today, the average age of a NASA engineer is up near 50.

High school and university students are no longer motivated by a passion for science and visions of technological revolution. Our standards and performance are both falling, and America's long-term economic and strategic interests will suffer as a result.

Something must be done to rekindle our youth's passion for the crucial STEM disciplines and innovation, to recapture the imaginations of young people as President Kennedy did half a century ago.

And in a free culture where you get what you celebrate, the solution is FIRST.

***

Back on that day in Manchester when I was disheartened that the kids could not name a single scientist, I noticed something besides a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the culture of science and technology. Each of them was adorned in the colors and logos of their favorite sports teams. There were Red Sox hats and Patriots jerseys, and I am certain that had it not been raining, these kids would have been outside playing football or basketball.

America, and by extension its youth, celebrates popular culture -- professional athletes, musicians, and Hollywood celebrities. As a result, young people aspire to emulate their idols. If kids looked at Nicola Tesla or Bill Gates the way they look at LeBron James and Tom Brady, then I guarantee that our students' enthusiasm for math and science would match their passion for Little League and Pop Warner.

More than twenty years ago, after realizing that the way to get kids interested in science and technology would be to give them a sport to succeed in, I founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program that encouraged students to pursue STEM careers through robotics competitions.

The name seemed appropriate; after all, kids don't run around with their arms in the air yelling that they're going to be SECOND. For our logo, my father made a design of an interlocking triangle, circle, and square, an allusion to a famous discovery of Archimedes. (It also looks a bit like another famous logo of interlocking circles favored by a certain athletic organization, but geometrically speaking, our shapes are far more sophisticated.)
Back in 1989, my idea was met with quite a few raised eyebrows. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and -- robots? How many kids would put down a baseball bat and pick up a soldering iron?

Two decades later, FIRST has hundreds of thousands of alumni in more than fifty countries around the globe. Our veterans are three times as likely as their peers to study engineering, and are more likely to secure internships, pursue STEM careers, and volunteer in their communities. Our alumni can be found in America's most elite schools and its best corporations, from the industrial giants who built this country to the Internet start-ups that are rapidly transforming our society. FIRST works, and each student who has been transformed by our program is living proof.

The key component of FIRST is not the thrill of building a high-functioning robot (though that it is pretty cool). The robot, pardon the pun, is just a tool, a vehicle. What matters more is the inspiration that comes from experiencing the thrills and rewards of STEM.

Like any other sport, FIRST has coaches. They are engineering professionals, from companies like Boeing and Ford and NASA. Engineers, it should be noted, are not the most sociable of creatures. (I am reminded of the old joke that an extroverted engineer is one who stares at your shoes rather than his own.) But when kids have the opportunity to work side by side with real scientists and engineers, it is just the same as, say, playing catch with Derek Jeter. The engineers are reminded of why they loved science and invention in the first place, and the students leave with a new set of heroes -- the STEM professionals who built this country.

***

FIRST is a proven solution to a serious crisis facing our nation. Unfortunately, despite our twenty years of phenomenal growth and success, our program is still not available to every student in the United States. Of the 25,000 or so high schools in this country, only about 15% have a FIRST team.

Our goal now is not to figure out a way to get kids excited about math and science; we've already done that. What we must do now is make FIRST part of the mainstream culture so that every kid in America has the opportunity to experience it.

At our World Championship in St. Louis last May (held at the Edward Jones Dome, the home of the St. Louis Rams), The Black Eyed Peas did indeed provide our halftime entertainment. At our season kickoff four months earlier, will.i.am himself offered some words of encouragement. "FIRST is already cool," he said, "I'm going to make it loud."

With the help of will.i.am and his colleagues, our hope is that FIRST will finally cease to be America's best kept secret and instead be a part of our culture. In a free country, you get what you celebrate. It is now time to celebrate an organization that will absolutely change the future of this nation.

***

On Saturday morning, tens of thousands of students and volunteers across the globe will tune in to a special broadcast as we kick off the 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition season. Over the next six weeks, as they construct a robot and experience the challenges and thrills of discovery and invention, these incredible kids will remind us that they are our best hope for a future based on innovation and technological revolution.

I hope you will all check out our calendar (http://usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc/regional-events?id=430) and attend a Regional event in your area, or our Championship in St. Louis. I guarantee that you will be amazed and inspired not only by the thrill of competition, but also by the energy that is created when kids have the opportunity to unlock new dreams and possibilities.

***

Somewhere out there right now is a kid who is tinkering. I know, because I was one of those kids. The sort that frustrates their parents by taking apart all of the birthday presents to see how they work. This curiosity, this passion for discovery, must be nurtured and encouraged throughout childhood and in our educational system. We cannot allow that fire of innovation to be snuffed out.

We need a new generation of technological leaders preparing themselves not only for successful careers in competitive fields, but also for the satisfaction that comes from living a life based on inspiration, passion, and possibility. That, after all, is what FIRST is all about.