You Get What You Celebrate

1/2/08

People think we have an education crisis, and that fixing some or all of the elements of “supply”—more teachers, more computers, more books, more standards, more tests, etc.— will solve the problem. My view is that we don’t have an education crisis, and we don’t have a supply crisis—we have a “demand” crisis. We need to create demand among kids to make science, technology, and engineering every bit as appealing and rewarding as bouncing a basketball or performing on a stage. Surely, that would better leverage the hundreds of billions of dollars that we already spend annually on the “supply” side of education.

On Saturday morning January 5th, the kickoff of the 2008 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition will be held in Manchester, NH, and broadcast worldwide by NASA. FIRST’s goal is to “change our culture.” FIRST is about inspiring kids. It’s about connecting them with mentors from the technical community, the genuine role models and heroes who have created our standard of living and quality of life. In the FIRST environment, kids see science, technology, and innovation as being every bit as accessible, rewarding, and fun as any sport or other general activity.

FIRST is succeeding. I’m happy to report that this year we already have more than 13,000 schools signed up. From our Junior Lego League to our mid-level Tech Challenge competition to our most advanced FIRST Robotics Competition, we engage students from elementary through high school. Our March Madness regional competitions will be hosted in 41 cities, mostly across the U.S., from Boston to Honolulu, but including a few in Canada, one in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and one in Tel Aviv, Israel. On April 17-19, the 2008 FIRST finals will be hosted in the 72,000-seat home of the 1996 Olympics, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

So demand is growing. Just as high school basketball impacts significantly more than just the team members, FIRST is impacting the larger community. In fact, FIRST is having an impact beyond the schools. Sponsoring companies, mentors, parents, and a broad range of spectators are exposed to the exciting world of technology. But there’s a lot more to do. Our goal is to make FIRST programs accessible to all students.

I started planning and organizing FIRST in 1989-90; our first competition was held in ’92. Why did we start it? Simple. In a free culture, you get what you celebrate. And in America, we celebrate primarily two activities that create almost all the role models in our culture—entertainment and sports.

Kids who are now growing up in an entirely media-driven culture are really at risk of missing the point. Sports and entertainment are not the cause of our wealth and our success; they’re the result of it. And sports and entertainment are not likely to be the place where kids will make a great contribution to society or derive successful careers for themselves. Many kids spend an inordinate amount of their “magic decade” between 7 and 17 bouncing a ball or dreaming about Hollywood and not developing the skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

More kids in our culture are obsessed with Shaquille O’Neal, Britney Spears, or Paris Hilton than are interested in science and technology. This is particularly true among women and minorities. By the time they are 10 years old, many have been convinced that science and technology are beyond their capabilities and that engineering is boring and only the domain of “nerds.” These kids are victims of a culture that promotes the idea that everything should be easy and should offer instant gratification.

Who says to these kids, “You know, the number of people who will actually make money in professional sports is minuscule compared to the number of people who will have great careers in science and engineering”? Nobody ever tells these kids that there are more black surgeons than there are professional basketball players. And that’s really sad.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is screaming toward 100 percent literacy and focused on the mastery of mathematics, science, and technology. A world where all kids are smart and productive will produce a safer, more sustainable, and exciting environment for all of us. But in the United States, it’s not happening. The way to combat this problem is to start celebrating the right things…hard work, technical excellence, and innovation.

I think FIRST is doing just that. FIRST is about volunteers, as some 61,000 engineers and technical people have already signed up to mentor and support our programs this year. I am confident that they each benefit as much from FIRST as the kids do. FIRST is truly a win-win opportunity for all its stakeholders: schools, corporate sponsors, mentors, universities, parents…the whole community.

But we need more participation. As a company, you could supply resources. As an individual, you could become a participant or enthusiastic spectator. There wouldn’t be a Boston Red Sox if they didn’t have fans. Click on this link and see if there’s a robotics program in your neighborhood. The Boston FIRST Regional will be held on March 28th and 29th, with more than 50 teams participating at the Boston University Agganis Arena.

If we get these kids to celebrate science, technology, and innovation, this country will continue to be the envy of the world. If we don’t do that, we’ll get what we deserve. And we won’t be celebrating.

Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, is an inventor, entrepreneur, and a tireless advocate for science and technology whose inventions include the Segway Human Transporter. His awards include the National Medal of Technology and the Lemelson-MIT Prize; he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. Follow @

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  • David Belliveau

    I tried to connect with http://www.usfirst.org this morning and it looks as if the celebration of science, technology and innovation has begun.

    The reason I say this is that the site was too busy for me to connect.

    Nothing demonstrates success and celebration more than an overloaded web server.

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  • Jennifer Church

    Not nearly enough celebration of the FIRST achievements! My son ate, drank and slept (or didn’t sleep) robotics for weeks. His team (1100) was 3rd in Boston and received the Industrial design award, but the news on this event is very sparse, with nothing beyond the winning team/robot. Very disappointing. Pages upon pages of sports in the Boston Globe, but only a brief article on FIRST. Very little online either. The best was the Blue Alliance website with some video and links.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/mhodosh/ Marc Hodosh

    Jennifer: I do agree with you, we are in competition with traditional sports and entertainment which typically receive tremendous coverage in the papers/news.

    However, the Boston FIRST regional this year did in fact receive great coverage; including 3 articles so far in the Boston Globe with more coming, FOX 25 television, The Boston Herald, WBZ, WBUR, MHT, and many more. Plus reporters from Discovery Channel, NECN, and many political folks following Mayor Menino were there and are still working on their stories. And most important of all… Xconomy.com has run a couple posts already!… so in all, we are pleased with this years coverage and public outreach.

    But again, I agree with you… this stuff should be front page news… and the Patriots & Red Sox can use page 2. :)