Making Science Cool

Kamen's Plan To Attract Students To Science

For years, inventor Dean Kamen had been frustrated because science wasn't considered as cool or interesting as sports or entertainment.

"Who goes out and says, 'While you have a better probability of winning the state lottery than making a nickel in sports, oh, by the way, last year two million exciting technical jobs went unfilled in this country because you weren't there to take that job,'" says Kamen.

"And it pays you 10 times as much as flipping burgers, and it's fun and it's exciting and you get to create things and build things and help make the world a better place and help make yourself a better living.' Who tells them this?"

As a result, Kamen started an organization to give young people this very message - FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The group tries to encourage children between the ages of 9 and 18 to have an appreciation for science and technology and realize how mastering these skills could lead to a future career.

FIRST sponsors two national contests to get middle and high school students jazzed by science. The largest one is the Robotics Competition, which pits student-built robots against one another at an assigned task. Each year, the tasks changes, and teams have six weeks to build their robots. The championship is held in April.

Each team has up to 50 students, and is paired with a company or a university that helps these kids bring their ideas to fruition. The average team ends up spending around $15,000 to create its entry. Today, they have more than 800 teams participating nationwide and internationally, in 23 regional events and a championship. The prizes include more than $1 million in scholarships.

The robotics competition also has a "minor league" for kids aged 9-14. These groups, which operate on the same principle, must build less advanced robots using LEGOs. In 2002, the task was to build robots that would move around and perform tasks in a miniature LEGO city. The LEGO competition involves 34 tournaments all over the world (most are in the U.S.), and the league includes 26,000 children across the U.S. and more than 5,000 children from other countries around the world.

  • David Kohn

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