By Leslie Langnau, Managing Editor
Do you remember when you first become excited about science and technology? If you’re like many of your fellow engineers, you always knew you had a talent for technology. Most of you cultivated that skill while still in grade or high school, but some did not discover their talent or find an interest until they were in college or even after they graduated. Today, however, our industry cannot afford to wait too long for a budding engineer to discover his or her talent. The challenges we face all over the globe demand that we inspire and encourage young people to move into science and technology as early in their academic life as possible.
One engineer has taken up the challenge to inspire our young students. Dean Kamen, noted inventor and entrepreneur founded the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program in 1989 to motivate young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.
“The engineers of this country are heroes,” said Dean Kamen in a recent interview with Design World. “And they should be the role models for kids rather than athletes, actors, or rock stars. It’s engineers who create our quality of life and support our standard of living.”
Unfortunately, kids and teenagers typically do not have engineers high on their lists of heroes. “I give engineers and scientists an A+ for being the engine of our economy and culture,” continued Kamen, “but I give them a C- for having a voice among kids. As professionals, parents, and citizens, the technical community of this country needs to have a voice with children. We can’t leave it to the world of Hollywood, politics, or entertainment to shape our children’s perspectives of the world. It’s the understanding of science and technology that helps children separate fact from nonsense and make intelligent decisions. Our culture will be shaped by the competence of the next generation.”
Unfortunately, the majority of youths’ heroes come from the worlds of entertainment and sports. “In a free culture where you get what you celebrate, it seemed to me that we need to teach kids, at a young age, to celebrate and appreciate the excitement of science, technology, and inventing. We need to help them develop thinking, problem solving, and analytic skills. If we don’t, we will have many people that can balance balls and jump around the stage, but we will lose our preeminence in the world, our quality of life, and our security.”
Attempts to interest children in science and technology have met with less than dynamic success. “Most people try to address this problem on the supply side— more teachers, more books, more standards, more money— or they view it as an education problem,” continued Kamen. “As an inventor I look at the same problem but see it differently. It’s not a school problem. It’s not an education problem. It’s not a supply problem. It’s a demand problem, or lack of it. As a culture we need to start creating demand, particularly among women and minorities of the next generation, who will constitute the majority of our workforce. It’s up to us, engineers and scientists, to show that careers in technology and engineering are every bit as fun, every bit as exciting, every bit as rewarding, and most of all, even more accessible than a career in basketball or Hollywood.
“If kids don’t put their energy and passion into developing their analytic skills, they will spend their lives in low-paying jobs. That’s a horrible consequence of our culture, which is selling the great American lie — that life should be instant gratification. Science, engineering, and technology take time to learn, but the effort is worth it. However, no one shows them this. We stereotype football players and rock stars as always being young, enthusiastic, rich, and happy while we stereotype scientists and engineers as middle-age white males stuck in labs. That image must change. I thought that if we could create a venue in which kids can see real scientists and real engineers that are proud of what they do and have fun doing it, if the kids can see that they too can solve problems and create solutions and build things and be proud of that, we will change the scope of their aspirations. We will change their perspective of the world. We will change where they put their time, their passion, and their resources, and we will change their career paths. This is what FIRST sets out to do. Every school in the country should have a football team, a baseball team, a band, and a FIRST program!”
This year, 1500 schools and 13,000 middle schools will participate in the program. In March, students from more than 39 cities will compete in the “March Madness” program, with the winners moving onto the finals in April.Franklin High School, located in the Pacific Northwest, is one example of such success. Educating minority and disadvantaged students, its Team Xbot program has grown from 10 students in 2002 to 60 students in 2007. This year, the kids developed a 120 lb robot and received the 2007 Silicon Valley Engineering Inspiration Award. They were also the Quarter Finalist World Champions. Often, until these students participated in FIRST, they had no plans to attend college. Not only did FIRST inspire them, many were able to obtain scholarships for college.
“Companies who sponsor or contribute money or materials to the program benefit in many ways,” said Kamen. “Engineers remember why they went to engineering school in the first place. Mentoring is fun and exciting, and they handle tasks and projects different from their normal workload. They also network with other companies around the country that buy their products or sell components to them and they get to be community leaders, something valued by many corporate executives, which is why we have such a phenomenal retention rate. Today, we have close to 2000 corporate sponsors.”
As engineers, we like to affect the future. Here’s your opportunity to do so. To get involved, contact FIRST www.usfirst.org and find schools in your area that hold the programs. If none exist, start one and spread the fun of engineering to young minds.
Filed Under: Motion control • motor controls