When was the last time you saw a science special in prime time on one of the major networks? Better yet, when was the last time you heard rock stars speaking passionately and convincingly about the value of science, engineering and technology? If you had to think long and hard before answering, you're not alone. These phenomena are as rare today as sightings of Halley's comet. But they did happen -- in case you missed it -- as recently as this month when will.i.am, the front man and producer for the award-winning musical group The Black Eyed Peas, teamed up with eminent technology innovator Dean Kamen to host the program i.am, FIRST -- Science is Rock and Roll on primetime ABC-TV, all to promote STEM education and celebrate the 20th annual FIRST Robotics competition.
I thought I had died and gone to heaven! As founder and organizer of the annual USA Science & Engineering Festival, I know well the power that such high-profile recognition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) carries in motivating the next generation of innovators -- especially if these celebrations involve personalities and other individuals that kids consider role models.
The broadcast, the first of its kind and billed as a back to school special by ABC, aired live August 14 from the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis MO before an enthusiastic crowd of 30,000 and featured musical performances by the Black Eyed Peas and Willow Smith, and words by Aneesh Chopra, Assistant to President Obama and Chief Technology Officer of the U.S.
Adding further excitement were special appearances by such celebrities as Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Bono, Jack Black, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Josh Duhamel and Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, who together touted the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
If will.i.am, Bono, Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber tells kids that they don't have to be a nerd to love science, you can bet students will believe them! As will.i.am conveyed to youths in the audience at the broadcast: "That BlackBerry you're carrying -- who do you think invented it? It certainly wasn't one of the Rolling Stones! It took science and engineering to make it happen. The same with the musical instruments and recording equipment I use -- they're all based on science!"
This message was also brought home in a special way when President Obama opened the broadcast with videotaped words of encouragement, telling the audience: "America has been the birthplace of everything from the solar cell, the Space Shuttle to the smart phone. We need our young people to keep that spirit of innovation alive in this new century."
As fascinating and refreshing as the "i.am.FIRST" broadcast was, equally interesting is how the airing came about -- a feat due to the close collaboration of will.i.am and Dean Kamen. Dean, founder of DEKA Research & Development Corporation, is perhaps best known (among other innovations) as the inventor of the Segway personal transporter. A long-time motivator of youth toward STEM fields, he founded FIRST Robotics Championship competitions, 20 years ago to encourage and celebrate the engineering prowess of K-12 kids around the world. He and DEKA are also avid and valued supporters of the USA Science & Engineering Festival.
As will.i.am (an admitted technology buff) tells it, he met Dean by happenstance. He was riding his Segway one day "and thinking about all the innovation and imagination it took to create that vehicle" when he decided to call a friend, who by chance knew Dean. "I was like, yo, do you know who invented this [Segway]?" he recalls asking his friend. The friend said, yes, it was Dean Kamen, a good acquaintance. And so will.i.am was introduced to Dean by email, and in the process Dean told him what FIRST Robotics was all about.
Recalls will.i.am: "He told me he had this program that he'd been doing for 20 years, teaching kids science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- and it included having robotics competitions every year. And I asked, 'How come I've never heard of that?' And he said, 'That's the problem.' "
As work was underway for the FIRST Robotics Championship 2011 (the 20th annual competition), will.i.am collaborated with Dean in exploring ways to give the event added public impact and exposure, including turning the event into a celebration of STEM education replete with a Super Bowl-like atmosphere, live music performances, celebrities and national prime time TV viewing through ABC.
"My whole thing is not to encourage kids to become music celebrities," says will.i.am, who also serves as director of Creative Innovation for computer chip manufacturer Intel where he supports development of new technologies in music. "We need to encourage them to enter such fields as science, math, engineering and technology. That's where the real challenge and need is for the future."
I applaud will.i.am, for his dedication and vision in support of STEM education and innovation, and I urge other celebrities to join him and the other personalities who attended the First Robotics broadcast to lend their time and support as well to this very important mission.
I also extend a hearty welcome to will.i.am and others to attend the 2nd USA Science & Engineering Festival and finale Expo taking place next April. For more information on this major event to motivate the next generation of innovators, including the event's massive Expo celebration culminating in Washington, DC, visit http://www.usasciencefestival.org/
Follow Larry Bock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/usasciencefest