Dean Kamen: Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

In an exclusive interview, the inventor of the Segway PT and founder of FIRST discusses the need to rethink how we teach and inspire future engineers.

Dean Kamen is known the world over as the inventor of the Segway PT. But the international youth nonprofit he founded in 1989 — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) — has likely moved and undoubtedly inspired more people. Hundreds of thousands of science and engineering students (such as FedEx Young Innovator Simone Braunstein) in 160 countries got their start with FIRST through robotics competitions. FedEx is proud to have supported FIRST and those innovation championships since 2002. Last month, Access sat down with Kamen at the 2017 FIRST Championship in St. Louis.

ACCESS: Innovation in technology has changed a lot since when you first established FIRST. Beyond those changes, what fundamentally has changed with the competition and for the teams?

DEAN KAMEN: Let me give you two completely, extremely different answers to the question of what’s changed. The most important thing is nothing has changed. The most important thing about FIRST the day I started it was to remind all of our sponsors, our parents, the teachers, that we’re not an education program. We have one goal: inspiration.

First Robotics competition

Kids in our culture are inspired by football players and basketball players and movie stars and entertainers. Most of the kids in this country, by the time they’re 5, 6, 7 years old, can tell you the name of a lot of people from Hollywood, from professional sports. They can’t tell you the name of a single living scientist, engineer, inventor. And it’s those scientists and engineers and inventors that create the world of the future. They give us the careers. They give us healthcare and education and security and energy and food. They’re there to make sure the planet doesn’t unravel itself.

These kids need to know that in order to participate in meaningful careers for themselves and for society, they need the toolsets. The toolsets keep getting more sophisticated, so they need to start earlier in life. And so I started FIRST 26 years ago to get a little bit of the hearts and the minds of these kids. Because in a culture where you get what you celebrate I said, “We’re going to form an organization that will show kids that science, technology, engineering and innovation is every bit as much fun and every bit as accessible as bouncing a ball, except it could lead to careers.”

I said, “We’ll build a sport in which every kid on every team can turn pro. It’s good for them. It’s a requirement of sustaining this country and a leadership role in the world. And it’s got to happen, and it’s got to happen quickly.” That was the mission, and that has not changed. Not a single thing about it’s changed. If anything, it’s just becoming clearer to the rest of the world that it’s what we need. Which is why we have 3,700 corporate sponsors. It’s why we have 140,000 volunteer technology people. The growth of FIRST, I think, is proof that that vision was needed.

Now, what has changed? So much has changed because, as you point out, technology is moving really fast. Sports change a little bit every year. But if you watched a baseball game 100 years ago, if you watched Babe Ruth play, you’d understand the game. If you looked at technology 100 years ago and you were plopped onto this planet yesterday, you’d be astounded. The computers people keep — you can hit nine or 10 buttons and talk to one of a few billion people anywhere on Earth in real time. That wasn’t thinkable 100 years ago.

So the irony, to me, is technology is changing incredibly fast. But people and society aren’t. And the question is: How do we keep people at least well-enough informed to deal with the advances in technology and make sure these advances are properly integrated as tools and not as weapons? I don’t mean weapons like fighting; I mean weapons like, will it take away jobs and not replace it with new jobs.

What I think has changed the most about FIRST is we started with simple little kits with, by today’s standards, basic technology. At the time we gave them those kits, it was cutting-edge. Now, companies like Qualcomm are giving us super-sophisticated chipsets to do sensor technology, real-time video communications, in these robots. That was unthinkable when we started.

We’re giving these kids the same thing you’d see on NASA missions.

ACCESS: That’s incredible. So, keeping them current is a big part of what you’re doing?

First Robotics - girls competing

D.K.: Yes, we have to inspire these kids to see how cool technology is. And giving kids 20-year-old textbooks with examples of technology that in those textbooks was already 20 years old doesn’t make sense. Sadly, the textbooks that they use in schools probably aren’t that different than the ones you and I played with.

Our kits today don’t even look remotely like the kits of the first year. We had 10-pound robots in year 1, and we have 120-pound robots now. The playing field back then was the size of this table, and now our playing field is almost as big as a basketball court. The kits have advanced technology in them. They do software, hardware, systems, controls.

So, the mission of FIRST hasn’t changed, but the tools are staying up with technology for a couple of reasons. As I said, you’ve got to impress these kids with how cool it is. But FIRST also depends on world-class engineering companies being willing to take their world-class engineers and make them the superheroes of our sport.

ACCESS: So, how does FIRST use these engineers — these superheroes?

D.K.: They mentor these kids. Do we have engineers here whose day job is at Google and Amazon and Facebook and all the cutting-edge companies that these kids know? Yeah. Do we have mentors who can say, “Well, I’m at NASA. I worked on the lunar landing.” Yes. Do we have people from the automotive giants? Yes. The semiconductor industry giants? Yes. The medical companies? Yes. These mentors are doing cutting-edge engineering in every field. And we want to make sure the kits, to them, are exciting, too.

ACCESS: What you initially said about two answers makes complete sense — looking at the fundamentals versus what inherently needs to evolve, right?

First Robotics - teams competing

D.K.: Right. The balance, to me, is what do we make sure never changes? Our mission and our focus; inspiring kids; bringing in more teachers, more parents, more companies. What has to change? Every year, I want to make sure we are showing off the cutting edge of technology and showing kids the capabilities that they’re going to be developing if they stay with FIRST. And I want every kid that leaves a competition to know, if I’m willing to work as hard at this as I would at some other thing that I might practice three hours a day, every day, for a season — if I work that hard at this, I have career options that I never thought about. And I can make a meaningful life for myself. And I can help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. That has been the mission for 26 years, and it has not changed.

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