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. 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?"

So 13 years ago, Kamen started an organization to give young people this very message. Called FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The group tries to encourage children between the ages of 9 and 18 to see science as exciting, and a future career.

To do this, 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. Last year's robots, for example, had to send soccer balls into a net while avoiding obstacles. Each year, the task the robots must do changes. Teams are told of the task in early January, and have six weeks to build their robots. The championship is in April.

The teams have up to 50 students. Each team is paired with a company or a university that helps the kids bring their ideas to fruition. The average team ends up spending around $15,000 to create its entry. This year more than $2 million in college scholarships will be awarded at the robotics championship.

The robotics competition also has a sort of "minor league" for kids aged 9-14. These groups, which operate on the same principle, must build less advanced robots using LEGO. This year, the task is to build robots that will 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.).

Some 40,000 students participate in the two leagues combined. Around 10,000 adults serve as mentors.