Changing the Playing Field

UPDATED: April 22, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 22, 2011

“We all know the favorites to make the Super Bowl,” says 59-year-old inventor Dean Kamen, “but who is making the room temperature superconductor that will change the way we live and work? Only a handful of people might know. It is a symptom of a very serious problem.”

Kamen, who holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, including one for the Segway people mover, wants to change American culture by making science a favorite activity for U.S. kids. The mission is not a quixotic quest for Kamen, but what he calls an imperative to maintain both this country’s quality of life and its future.

Kamen is having some success. A program he introduced in 1992 called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) started with 28 teams and six corporate sponsors participating in a robot competition in a high school gym. This year, the competition had grown to more than 12,000 students, 90,000 volunteers, thousands of alumni, and more than 3,500 corporate sponsors. The process culminated in April championship matches at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

With the help of corporate mentors, students build robots and compete at regional FIRST events nationwide. Music blares and thousands of spectators cheer during these massive robotic pep rallies, as teams vie to advance to that annual FIRST national championship.

“Although by most metrics, we are astoundingly successful, we are nowhere near where I want us to be,” Kamen says from his office in a former mill along the Merrimack River in Manchester, N.H. “We can’t afford to wait another generation to make this available to every kid—and my definition of a generation is the four-year high school cycle. The time urgency is critical."

Solving monumental problems is nothing new for Kamen, who says, “If I’m awake, I’m working.”

In high school, he found he had a brain full of questions about the world but struggled with the inhibiting structure of the education system. A conversation with his brother, then a medical school student, led him to create the world’s first drug-infusion pump. In 1976, Kamen founded his first medical device company to manufacture and market the pumps. At 30 he became a millionaire when he sold the company to Baxter International Inc. By then, he had added a number of other infusion devices, including the first portable insulin pump for diabetics.

Kamen founded DEKA Research & Development Corporation to foster his own inventions and provide research and development for major corporate clients. He has developed devices that have drastically improved medical care, artificial robotic limbs light-years ahead of their predecessors, wheelchairs that climb stairs, and the Segway, a two-wheeled people mover he once believed would transform transportation. It didn't, and Kamen moved on.

One of his newest projects is a water purification technology to help provide drinking water to the estimated 1.1 billion people in the world who lack access to clean water.

His honors include the National Medal of Technology (2000) and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.

Despite his professional obligations, Kamen devotes “almost all my waking hours not involved with my day job” to creating a culture in the United States that celebrates science.

In 1989, Kamen built a hands-on scientific learning center on the first floor of the mill he had remodeled into an office, “to give back to this community and convince kids that science is exciting and fun, and filled with a lot of mystery,” he explains.

On one particular rainy day, Kamen recalls being happy that the center was so busy, but he was struck that all the kids running from one place to another wore Boston Celtics shirts, Bruins shirts, entertainment-of-the day shirts. He noticed their parents were dressed similarly.

“I said to one of the kids, ‘I see you are wearing a Patriots shirt, but you are in a science center. Can you name some famous scientists and engineers?’ ” Kamen recalls. “He just kind of looked at me strangely.” He repeated the exercise with several more children, and then approached some of the adults. Not one could name a notable living scientist or engineer, let alone the multiple scientists around the world working on the room-temperature superconductor, a compound that can conduct electricity without resistance.

“I started thinking what a strange culture we live in,” he says. “After all, in a free culture, you get what you celebrate.”

By the time he got to his desk upstairs, the keen problem-solver started brainstorming about how he might instill among the next generation of kids a passion for learning, thinking, problem solving and being innovative.

“In a culture that’s obsessed with sports and entertainment, we’ll just make science the sports and entertainment,” he recalls thinking. “We could make it competitive, ending with aspiration goals and results; take it outside the academic grading culture.”

Very quickly, he says, the real core of the problem appeared: The magic of sports and entertainment in this country is that kids want to do what their older siblings do, what prominent young adults do.

“What inspires the kids to get up early or stay late is Shaquille O’Neal, not the gym teacher,” he says. “The gym teacher is there to give them the skills they need, but the passion is entirely driven in this country by the role models our culture creates.”

He surmised that the only way for a science competition to work was to enlist the Shaquille O’Neals of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering—young, attractive women, African- Americans, Hispanics—to shatter “the stereotypes that all scientists are middle-aged white males with frizzy hair and German accents.”

Kamen realized that there are many companies with “NBA-caliber” engineers, and because the average age of this country’s scientists and engineers is “alarmingly high,” he says, smart company leaders have an interest in cultivating the next generation to succeed them.

Today, corporate sponsors of FIRST are in a position to create not only new role models for kids, but also increased demand for the next generation of science superstars.

To give those kids an added edge, FIRST offers more than $9.5 million in academic scholarships, in addition to new competitions for younger age groups. “At the end of our 18th season, we started our own March Madness, with 19,000 schools from 56 countries participating in elimination rounds,” Kamen says.

The tireless Kamen keeps inviting them all back for more. He pledges he won’t let up until FIRST is as available to every kid in this country as football, soccer or the school band.