"We've got to show kids it's more fun to design and create a video game than it is to play one."
By Dean Kamen
FIRST has always believed that a society gets what it celebrates.
Today, our society faces some fundamental problems. We have an urgent need to find solutions to critical problems such as limited access to clean water, unsustainable energy sources, and the spread of infectious disease. These problems impact our quality of life on this planet. We can’t ignore them, or simply hope for a solution. As a society, we must actively and deliberately take the steps necessary to “get” the solutions we need.
So, how well prepared are we to get those solutions? When I look at the things our society currently celebrates, I believe we need another option. We won’t find solutions through athletic achievement. We won’t find solutions in celebrity status. We won’t litigate them.
We have to invent solutions.
Yet our society isn’t celebrating achievement in science and technology. Not enough young people recognize the opportunity, power, and joy of a lifetime of solving problems through science, technology, and engineering. We live in a world that tells our kids they should view celebrity status or athletic achievement as the most realistic paths to a life of success and meaning. They’re implicitly told that career options that demand excellence in analytical skills, and the ability to innovate, are beyond their reach. As a result, we risk not only our ability to effectively solve society’s critical problems; we risk our quality of life.
We founded FIRST to offer another option. The original vision for FIRST was to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. That vision still guides us today. FIRST has accomplished remarkable things since we began pursuit of that vision in 1989. In 2006, FIRST helped 125,000 young people on 10,000 teams discover the excitement and rewards of education and careers in science, engineering, and technology.
FIRST’s growth is the result of a community’s extraordinary commitment to changing the way students experience science, technology, and math. There is no better example than the Kauffman Foundation’s multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment to FIRST in Kansas City. It’s a commitment that has grown the number of FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) teams in Kansas City high schools from two to forty-two and the number of FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams in middle schools from zero to over 130. In Spring 2007, Kansas City will host both an FRC Regional Competition and an FLL Tournament. The Kauffman Foundation’s commitment along with teachers, students, and volunteers are making Kansas City a national model for a new alternative to education in science, technology, and math.
To understand the alternative FIRST offers, just look at what we celebrate. We celebrate the strength and commitment of volunteers. Teachers, parents, employees of corporate sponsors, and civic leaders volunteer their time, energy, and talent as mentors, judges, referees, and event staff. They’re part of a remarkable network of over 46,000 volunteers.
We celebrate the reality that young people will respond to tough challenges, not with excuses and distractions, but with energy and innovative thinking. If you’ve any doubt, I invite you to visit a FIRST event. Talk to the teams. Ask them about the challenges they faced, the solutions they built, and the lessons they learned. You’ll come away inspired.
We celebrate what’s possible when gracious professionalism is standard practice, not stale rhetoric. Watch how FIRST teams respond to their own and their competitor’s successes and setbacks. It’s clear that for our society, fierce competition and mutual gain do not have to be separate notions.
We celebrate the simple truth that in six weeks an adult engineer can provide a young person with learning and inspiration that can impact a lifetime. As a result, FIRST students don’t avoid education and careers in science and technology; they seek them.
Recently, we’ve seen significant evidence that what we’re celebrating is helping to “get” what society needs. Brandeis University conducted an independent, retrospective study to assess FIRST’s impact on students’ academic and career paths. The findings are clear and powerful:
- FIRST participants were twice as likely to major in a science or engineering field and three times more likely to major specifically in engineering when compared with a group of students with similar backgrounds and academic experiences, including math and science.
- FIRST students don’t want less education, they want more. They are significantly more likely than the comparison group to expect to pursue a postgraduate degree.
- FIRST students don’t spurn engineering career opportunities, they earn them. They are ten times more likely to have had an internship or co-op job in their freshman year than the comparison group.
- Finally, FIRST students expect to pursue a science and engineering career more than twice as often as the comparison group.
I would like to thank all the students, parents, volunteers, sponsors, mentors, teachers, and community leaders whose commitment has made FIRST’s vision a powerful reality. I would also like to offer particular thanks to the Kauffman Foundation for its leadership and commitment to science, technology, and math education.
FIRST offers another option, one that calls on our unique power of innovation and creative thinking. It’s an option that offers much to individuals and society.
It’s an option worth celebrating.
Dean Kamen has spent most of his career inventing breakthrough medical devices: a wearable infusion pump for hospital patients, the first insulin pump for diabetics, a portable dialysis machine, a wheelchair that can climb stairs. In 2001, he unveiled his Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheeled, self-balancing vehicle. In 1989, Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a multinational nonprofit organization that aspires to transform culture by making science, math, engineering, and technology as cool for kids as sports are today. FIRST operates the FIRST Robotics Competition in which teams of high school students, sponsored and assisted by local companies and volunteers, design, assemble, and test a robot capable of performing a specified task in competition with other teams. The winners of regional matches meet in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome to vie for the championship.
This essay is an excerpt from the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2007
. To view a table of contents for the 2009 edition, or to order a printed copy of the publication, please visit our 2009 Thoughtbook page