Dean Kamen, Inventor and Founder of FIRST, brings his STEM knowledge to the pod to talk about getting kids engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math. In a society that encourages and emphasizes sports and the arts, Dean wants to make sure that kids feel empowered and inspired to find the fun in learning about technology, too. Talking points in this insightful interview include how FIRST was founded, what the future of tech careers looks like, and how to get kids interested in robotics.
[00:00] Podcast begins - Revolutionizing STEM Learning for Kids
[02:54] Early patents & the Auto Syringe
[09:52] Finding the root of a cultural STEM problem
[15:31] Competition, cooperation, & coopetition at FIRST
[19:35] Reflecting on over 30 years of FIRST
[22:00] Making STEM as popular as school sports
[26:31] Getting communities & corporations involved in FIRST
What inspired you to start FIRST after working on so many different patent projects?
After working for several years as a successful inventor, Dean felt motivated to make an impact on the younger generations of his community. Oftentimes, people had told Dean that the dwindling interest in STEM fields had to do with issues in the American education system. FIRST, a global robotics community for kids, was Dean’s idea to tackle this problem, which he believes is a cultural, not educational, problem that requires an inventive, creative solution.
“It's not an education problem, it's a culture problem. Let's figure out a way to get kids passionate about developing that muscle hanging between their ears, just as they get passionate about bouncing a ball or kicking a ball or being on a stage.”
Can you tell us more about FIRST’s unique take on competition and cooperation?
Although school sports have inspired Dean’s approach to FIRST, competition is not the central point of a kid’s involvement in the robotics community. Instead of just focusing on rankings and scores, Dean wants FIRST kids to learn about the important intersection of “coopetition.” “Coopetition,” which takes its name from competition and cooperation, at FIRST gives kids a chance to learn valuable teamwork skills and achieve their goals collectively.
“All the kids are going to win because what they're learning is way more than technology. They're learning how to communicate. They're learning how to cooperate. They're learning all the skills you need to deal in a complex world with complex issues.”
Since you started FIRST 30 years ago, what has surprised you the most?
For over 30 years, FIRST has grown exponentially to serve over half a million children. Present in over 80,000 schools across 190 countries, Dean feels proud of the impact FIRST is having for children worldwide. However, FIRST still has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. Dean is most surprised by how long it has taken to show many communities the importance of offering STEM opportunities to all children in America.
“I'm very proud that we've got half a million kids on these teams, but on the other hand, when you look at the scale of the opportunity…I think it's a shame that FIRST isn't already available to every kid in this country.”
What can we do to foster the pathway to STEM for kids?
A cultural shift is required for STEM to become something important for younger generations. Dean advises that the best way to start on shifting perspectives from STEM being boring or hard to interesting and exciting is getting all members of the community involved. In the near future, Dean hopes to see more companies like Softeq forging a future for tech programs that reach the next generation and encourage involvement in programs like FIRST.
“There's a deep cultural sense in this country, particularly among young girls, that math, science, engineering, and these other things, they're hard and they're boring and there's no future in them.”