Making science a spectator sport

I had a chance to see Dean Kamen speak last night, and I have to say he was inspiring. The man, who is known for inventing the Segway two-wheeled transport, has actually touched millions of people more directly through a variety of innovative medical devices, including the first portable glucose injector, better stents for heart patients, and improved wheelchairs and prosthetic arms.

The occaision was the kickoff of a science festival that brings together school children, scientists from around the world, and leading local technologists for a multi-day series of seminars held at our local science museum. Some of them, such as the session on the science behind flirting, are just fun. Others present up-to-minute basic research. There are even a variety of rare Omnimax movies too. For a geek, it is hog heaven.

Anyway, back to Kamen. He showed us some of the devices that he has invented over his career. What I found amazing is how down to earth he is about his creations: yup, I just came up with this thingie, it is now used by ten million diabetics or hundred million kidney patients. He wears jeans and work boots — even when visiting the White House to receive one of his numerous awards or proclamations. Perhaps it is an affectation, but it comes across as someone who isn’t trying to impress anyone. You got the feeling that after the speech and when the theater lights are turned off, he is just going about his business, coming up with the next great thing.

One of his current efforts is an international science competition called FIRST that involves thousands of grade school, middle school and high school students to build various robotic devices and square off against each other in the grand tradition of any sporting event. Indeed, that was his original motivation — our society honors and extols the virtues of athletes, so why not use the same metaphor for budding student scientists? He has been extraordinarily successful. Each year’s competition is larger with more teams and more corporate sponsorship than the last. One of his sponsors’ CEO at a large aerospace firm put it this way: he told the audience that most of the engineers are nearing retirement age and he needs to find thousands of replacements, and find them quickly. So sponsoring FIRST teams isn’t completely altruistic, it is the best way to develop a farm team and start locating and encouraging fresh talent. Makes a lot of sense to me. Kamen now requires his sponsors to kick in four-year college scholarships too, which is terrific.

Ironically, Kamen was here the day after Lance Armstrong was in town inking a new deal with Michelob, something else that St. Louis is famous for (the beer, not Lance.) Kamen also announced last night that FIRST will hold its final championship rounds in St. Louis starting in 2011. They have outgrown their current digs and he wanted to take the competition to a city that would be a natural fit for science buffs.For those of you that aren’t local, this may come as a bit of a surprise. Not Silicon Valley? Or Austin? Or even Chicago? (That suggestion drew a big laugh last night.) St. Louis has long roots in science competitions, stretching back to Lindbergh’s flight and the X Prize. I am very proud that our region was chosen and look forward to attending the events.

It is time we considering making science and engineering more of a spectator sport. We need farm teams, seeding the professional leagues, we need local venues that will bring out the tailgaters and the devotees wearing their colors parading around downtown the night before the big meet. We need commentators that will give us the play-by-play. We need the winners to be celebrated more than the annual Westinghouse/Intel scholars or the Nobelists that were just announced this past week. We need highways names after famous scientists, not just steroid-laden sluggers. Granted, nerds have come a long way since I was in high school and couldn’t get a date. But Kamen showed me just how far we still need to go.


5 thoughts on “Making science a spectator sport

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  2. Jim House writes:
    Our kids grew up in New Hampshire and Dean played a great roll in what our kids did in choosing a path when going on to collage. Both our kids were on teams of his FIRST LEGO (a junior program). Our daughter worked on a First team in High School. Then went on to Mechanical Engineering (Lafayette) and a Master in engineering Management at Duke. She now work for United Technologies and per there web site “UTC has contributed approximately $2.6 million to FIRST since 1995 when the company began sponsoring teams.”

    Our son is in the engineering school at Purdue, I think this was in part due to his work with LEGO and programming experience he gained in Grade School.

    This program works and when the had the national and later world at the Verizon Center in Manchester NH it was a wild party for these kids.

    Just thought you would like to get some very positive feedback on this program.

  3. A.Lizard writes:

    We need to go a lot further than that. Young people now pick college degrees based on the odds of finding a job on graduation more than at any other time I know of in history. I tell young people with a bent for science and technology, especially IT that if they want to pursue a career in these fields, start country-shopping and get up to speed in the right languages in high school because unless they are extraordinarily lucky, they won’t be pursuing sci/tech in America.

    The reason why these “farm teams” no longer exist isn’t related to the wishes of young people, it was based on the decisions of high-tech companies to offshore entry-level science and technology positions en masse. What high-tech has done with respect to professional employment is the exact equivalent of Major League Baseball Inc. closing down all the American farm teams for baseball and saying “it’s a shame we can’t find Americans who want to play baseball” 5 years later.

    In the area of science/technology employment, Fortune 1000 credibility is gone. Young people believe that the interest in companies in getting lots of American grads in science and technology is so they can cherry-pick the best 1% and let the other 99% flip burgers with a debt burden based on a useless 4 year degree that their fellow burger-flippers do not have and I do not disagree with them in public when they say this.

    If high-tech companies truly want to hire Americans for science and engineering positions, they can do something along the lines of the Boston Compact (‘we’ll hire anyone with an science/engineering degree B- or better GPA’)… and given their level of credibility, they’ll need to form an actual consortium and sign individual and binding contracts with each student who wants to participate in order to get young people to believe that they are serious.

    If they do this, they won’t need to “improve the image of science and technology professions” through hype. Unless and until the Fortune 1000 is willing to spend what has to be spent to solve the problems, I see no reason why they need or deserve help with suckering young people into science and technology professions with journalists supporting the hype.

    I admire Dean Kamen based on his engineering accomplishments. But he’s been so long around the top of his profession that he identifies with the interests of his Fortune 1000 CEO customers, not young people who want to grow up to do what he’s doing.

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