FIRST Things First: What Was Dean Kamen Thinking?

The prolific inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless STEM advocate shares the origins of his determination to help the next generation discover what truly engaged learning is all about.

INTERVIEW | by Mark Gura

Three decades have come and gone, but one thing never changes: the persistent spirit of Dean Kamen. He is a prolific inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology. And his passion and determination to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology are the cornerstones of FIRST. For over 30 years, Kamen has resolutely led the growth of FIRST to where it is now universally recognized as the leading, not-for-profit STEM engagement program for kids worldwide. 

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501(c)(3) 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. FIRST is ‘more than robots’, as Kamen has often said. FIRST participation is proven to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields, inspire them to become leaders and innovators, and enhance their 21st-century work-life skills.

The following interviews, one with Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST (in two parts), and another with Don Bossi, its president resulted from a broader effort to survey and capture the current state of Student Robotics (a STEAM learning approach driven by robotics-focused activities) as well as some of its current most effective, visionary, and relevant practices and resources. The fuller body of findings will be included in the upcoming State of Student Robotics: An Educator’s Guide to be released by EdTech Digest in September 2019.

The first part of this interview with Dean Kamen, the visionary founder of the programs reveals the remarkable story of how FIRST was conceived and created, a ground breaking, game-changing shift in approach to STEM education. One that already has had tremendous impact, but which at the same time is truly just beginning now, with more than 30 years behind it, to realize its full potential.

PART 1 | FIRST Robotics Competition: The Origin Story

Dean Kamen: [over the phone] This is Dean. How are you?

Mark Gura: Well, Dean, what a great pleasure it is to get some of your time. We appreciate it very much.

Dean: Hey, this is entirely enlightened self-interest. As I tell everybody, to get the message out about FIRST, I’ll do any—my threshold is, if it’s legal and I can keep my clothes on, I’ll do it if it helps FIRST.

Mark: I appreciate the spirit you bring to this conversation. What Victor [Rivero, Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest] and I are up to is creating a guide for educators thinking about getting involved with robotics, so obviously we have to include and feature FIRST. I thought what we could get at is more of the human side behind the organization and its programs. You’re an interesting person and you’ve done some very interesting things, and so, I’d like to probe that a little bit. Now it’s about 30 years since FIRST began, right?

Dean: One thing I can tell you is, in over 30 years I have never, ever, ever changed my message one bit. I said when I started FIRST, “Look everybody, we all seem to know—government leaders, parents, teachers, corporate—everybody back then, 30 years ago, knew the importance of education, but they all also were concerned that enough kids aren’t learning math and science to sustain our industry, to keep our competitiveness. And they all talked, and used words like ‘education crisis’.

My mom was an educator back then. She’s an educator still today she never lets me forget that she’s a teacher. I said 30 years ago, look, there are loads of great programs in school, there are loads of great organizations that are trying to improve education, but I think they’ve completely misdiagnosed the problem. America does not have an education crisis. We have great schools, we have great teachers, and we spend more on education than most of the rest of the world combined. It’s not an education crisis. It’s a culture crisis.

It’s not what we don’t have enough of: textbooks, schools. It’s what we have too much of. A rich society like America has distractions like nobody has ever seen. Ironically created by the technology we’ve created.

When I was a kid, even, there was a Super Bowl, but it didn’t bring the country to its knees. We had a thing called the World Series in baseball, which was called a national pastime, not a national obsession. Look, it’s very simple: almost every other area of human activity has figured out how to make itself exciting.

Everybody is fighting for the time and attention of kids. Every kid I know, by the time they’re five years old in this country — kids from the richest parents, kids from the poorest parts of town, all know famous football players, baseball players. You can ask any five-year-old who’s wearing that T-shirt or that jersey or that sweatshirt from the Celtics or the Bruins or the you-name-it, can tell you all these famous people. They can also tell you famous people from Hollywood, and they can tell you famous singers and Grammy Award winners.

But now if you ask a kid, no matter what their background — socioeconomics makes no difference — “Tell me the name of a famous living scientist or engineer, or teacher for that matter.” They couldn’t possibly do it. And, I said to people 30 years ago, by the way, “Here’s our problem. In a free culture you get what you celebrate.” We no longer, as a culture celebrate, at all, science, technology, engineering, math, or inventing. Kids read about and the history books make Orville and Wilbur seem like a distant past and not real people. Thomas Edison… none of them think engineering and inventing and technology is going on in real time today. Ironically, it’s faster. None of them think it’s an exciting place for them to put their time and attention.

And they’ll all spend hours a day bouncing a ball or kicking a ball or running around a stage because they got the cultural message about what to celebrate. They all want to be great at that stuff. They’re willing to do it after school, hour after hour, practicing. But in school they get Science for 45 minutes between other subjects.

Mark: For someone who’s approached Education from the outside of schools, I think you’ve made some very astute observations that importantly account for something that has eluded most professional educators – by that I mean, how what goes on in school fits within the broader context of our society’s full culture and how inconsistencies between the two account for some of School’s failures to carry out its core mission: engaging students and fostering their learning; important learning. So, what shift in approach to get the two areas more in sync have you conceived and pushed for?

Dean: If we don’t present engineering and technology to kids in as intensely exciting a way as we do football and basketball, don’t blame the teachers for what you get or, more importantly, don’t get. Kids don’t become great at sports because they learned in 45-minute segments under pressure, forced to do it. They want aspirational activities. They want to earn that varsity letter.

If we don’t present engineering and technology to kids in as intensely exciting a way as we do football and basketball, don’t blame the teachers for what you get or, more importantly, don’t get.

And how do we get them to be good at sports? There are no quizzes, there are no tests. There are tournaments and there are trophies and there are mascots and there are school bands.

I said, “What kids wouldn’t like that, compared to what they do in class?”

And the same teacher who’s got to be judgmental in the classroom and put that red mark on kids’ work and give them a 63 or a C or a D or an F, that same teacher, that judgmental person, turns his or her hat around at 3:30, goes out and becomes the football coach or the basketball coach or the band director. And suddenly, they’re there to nurture—and they say things to kids like, “Oh, you struck out, but that was a lucky pitch, da-da-da.”

After school, kids are allowed to practice and they’re allowed to fail and they’re allowed to be supported as they get better at what they care about.

When you made that argument 30 years ago to people, they’d say, “Well, Dean, there’s a real big difference between classes and sports.” But I said, “Yeah, of course there’s a big difference. One of them works and gets the time and attention of kids. That’s why this country has no shortage of people in the world of entertainment and sports.”

And by the way, yes it’s expensive on a per-student basis. And yes kids can break their knees and every once in a while their necks. But the reasoning goes, ‘Sports are really important because what kids learn is teamwork.’

And I say, great. That same coach that’s allowed to be instilling the importance of teamwork and collaboration at the school, why is it when they do teamwork in the classroom it’s called cheating? Everything you’ve done in school has made the school experience—except for a few kids that embrace it—difficult, frustrating and, at the very least, boring experience. And kids in the modern world have loads and loads of exciting alternatives competing for their attention.

Mark: Dean, I’ve been in the field of Education even longer than you have. And I want to say that as the holder of numerous certificates that have qualified me to be a teacher, principal, and a superintendent, I agree with the assessment of the situation that you’ve shared—as well as your thoughts about how, culturally, our society could turn the situation around. But you’ve done more than think this through; you’re a man of action, you’ve actually produced results and I wonder if you might talk a bit about how you produced actual results.

Dean: 30 years ago I said I’m going to start a not-for-profit. It will not have the word education in it, because we’ve got nothing wrong with education. It’s going to be called FIRST because I’ve never seen kids at a sporting event saying, “I’ll just do this sport pass-fail. We don’t need to keep score. It’s too much fun. There’s too much pressure to keep score. We’ll all just throw the basketball and we don’t need teams, and we don’t need—” I said, “We’re gonna call it FIRST because I’ve never seen kids walking around cheering, ‘I wanna be second.’” Now, they’ll take math pass-fail, they won’t take physics at all, but the things that are just there for fun like sports, that they want to be best at.

“We’re gonna call it FIRST because I’ve never seen kids walking around cheering, ‘I wanna be second.’”

Ironically, the stuff they need to be best at [they need in order] to have careers; we’ll call it FIRST, because that’s very sport-oriented, and just read what the word says: For the Inspiration and the Recognition of Science and Technology.

That’s who we are, that’s what we do.

Our one mission is to create in all kids an understanding that developing that muscle hanging between their ears is every bit as exciting as developing any other muscle, any other skill set—and the only difference between our sport and all the others is we have the only sport where every kid can turn pro. There aren’t two million jobs out there every year in the NBA and the NFL, and if you’re not seven feet tall, you’re not going to make it in the NBA. If you don’t weigh 300 pounds, you’re not going to make it at the NFL.

Look, we have a sport that we will prove to kids in six weeks, in their first season of our sport, and we’ll make it a short, intense season like every other sport—because they know how to do it. They made it work. I’m just stealing the quote out of their playbook. We put these kids in a sport, and at the end of one season, yeah, they’re not gonna be roboticists, but at the end of the season, these kids are going to come away saying, “I can do that. It’s fun. It’s cool.” They will walk away with self-respect. They’ll walk away with a new awareness of what’s possible. They’ll appreciate the power of engineering, of mathematics, of analytic thinking. They’ll see superstars from industry that are as proud of what they do, solving problems, building hypersonic aircraft, curing cancer, as people still bouncing a ball for a living.

They’re not gonna be roboticists, but at the end of the season, these kids are going to come away saying, “I can do that. It’s fun. It’s cool.” They will walk away with self-respect. They’ll walk away with a new awareness of what’s possible.

Kids [start] to realize that the only sport in which humans compete in the unlimited class is building things. You think that football player’s really big? Put an elephant on the field. You think that track star is really fast? Put a gazelle on the field. The only place where we’re in the unlimited class is—hey, we’ll never fly like a bird. But I’ve never seen a bird at 45,000 feet doing Mach 2 crossing North America in four hours.

And we didn’t do that because of the muscles hanging off our arms. We have the ability to take abstract ideas, the laws of physics, the rules of engineering and, with the discipline and standing on the shoulders of 2,000 years from Archimedes on up through Newton and Galileo, we now have the capacity to create things that no other animal can. We can take these big, abstract ideas—the laws of physics, the rules of engineering, our opposed thumb, our tools—and turn those big abstract ideas into incredible solutions to real problems.

And you can convince kids that’s exciting in six weeks. And say to them, “Wow, you think moving that robot 20 feet was exciting? You had six weeks and a little pile of junk. What if you had six months? What if you had six years? What if you had a career and an unlimited basket of goodies that you could put together?

And instead of building a little robot, what if you could build a device like the Moon Rover? What if you could build a machine that could help diagnose or cure cancer? What if you could build a device and you—just make a list?! What do you dream about?”

And instead of building a little robot, what if you could build a device like the Moon Rover? What if you could build a machine that could help diagnose or cure cancer? What if you could build a device and you—just make a list?! What do you dream about?”

And you say to these kids, “You can do that. Every one of you can do that, and if any one of you puts anywhere near as much time and attention into developing that muscle between your ears as you spend being distracted by other things, you’ll be a different person.”

That’s the message I had 30 years ago. It’s never changed. I wish we started earlier.

Mark: Thank you. I was going to ask about the vision, but I think we got the vision. I’m a little bit floored, because one would expect you to talk more about the science and engineering education, but really you wrapped your brain around a more essential problem. There’s plenty of science and engineering education there already. You’re really concerned about how to make a connection between science and engineering learning and kids’ interests and passions—to make it come alive.

Dean: Exactly right. In fact, when I tried to convince people to get involved with my first board of directors, and I asked people, at the time, people like the Secretary of Education, I said, “You know what? Our tag line For Inspiration, I reckon, is to make it so clear we don’t have an education problem. We’ve got to change the culture. We’ve got to do this.” And I said to all these guys, our tag line—you’ve all heard that famous saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”—I think we ought to say first, “You can lead a kid to knowledge, but you can’t make him think.” And I said, “You guys, in your corporate and government labs, in your universities—you have world-class, excited people that are proud of what they do.”

You’ve all heard that famous saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”—I think we ought to say first, “You can lead a kid to knowledge, but you can’t make him think.”

Kids can see when people love what they do. They see Shaquille O’Neal and all these athletes happily doing what they’re doing, and if they ever see a scientist or engineer, like in the news, it’s always some sociopathic, antisocial old wrinkled guy out to destroy the world from a secret laboratory. Or if it’s a girl that happens to like math or science, she’s always the butt of a cheap joke, where they’re geeky and unattractive. And if it’s a guy, it’s the one who gets sand kicked in his face. Somehow it’s still perfectly acceptable in our culture to live with the stereotype that scientists and engineers don’t fit the mainstream, they’re not very happy and nobody should want to be one.

And then you say to kids, “You realize the average income of the average engineer is way, way more than you’ll ever make making French fries at McDonald’s, if you don’t make it into the NBA? If you can become an engineer, you not only get to buy the sports cars, you get to understand stuff. And you don’t get to just play with all the advanced video games, you get to create them, invent them.” So let’s get rid of these stereotypes and make sure kids understand what the consequences are of living with the great American lie that life is about sports.

Mark: And you’ve done that darn well with FIRST.

Dean: Thank you.

Mark: You’re welcome. If I may, though, I’m wondering a little bit about robotics, because when you started FIRST I’m sure you were thinking about it before 1989, but back in ’89, yeah, there were some real robots in the world, but most of the robots, you know, were the Jetsons, the Jetsons’ maid, or Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet; science fiction.

So I’m wondering, how is it that you decided—and correct me if I’m wrong, but FIRST—this is not written in stone forever, I understand, but up to now, people see FIRST as highly associated with Student Robotics. How did you choose that end of STEM back in those days when they called it “MST”—it was just math, science and technology? How did that particular piece of it fall into place?

Dean: If you were to look at my 1989 and 1990 invitations to people, it typically started with, “It’s not about the robots.” It’s never been about the robots. It’ll never be about the robots. And I would always say, “A robot is just a vehicle to engage kids—it’s just a tool to get the point across.“  

“It’s not about the robots. It’s never been about the robots. It’ll never be about the robots.”

But that’s important because I wanted to create a sport; it was clear to me that’s what dominates the American culture, particularly for kids in the lower socioeconomic environments, and many don’t finish high school—but think they’re going to be in the NBA.

A sport will be a self-selection process of getting the kids that are hardest to get to, that’ll never be gotten to because you made a curriculum better or came up with a better text, because they’re not there—a sport has to be visual. You have to be able to watch it and understand it. The sport can’t be writing code, it can’t be doing chemical formulas, it can’t be solving equations.

All sports have something in common. They’re running, they’re jumping, they’re smashing into each other, hitting each other. They kick the ball, they hit the ball, they throw the ball. So I said, “All right, I have to make things run around, so I’ll make it robots.” Okay, well wait a minute: if I make it robots, they’ve got to learn mechanics. Wait a minute. Robots have motors, they’ve got to learn electricity. Wait a minute. They’ve got to have structures, they’ve got to learn mathematics.

The very first year we did this, I got Autodesk, gave all our participants their CAD program (Computer Assisted Design). Which was great because instead of offering kids the same old esoteric science, which perpetuates their wondering, “Why do you need to learn Algebra? Why do you need to know how to multiply numbers?”—our program gets them to understand and think, “Oh, because I want to get that motor to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, with as much power; power is volts times amps. Well, I’ve got a 12-volt battery. How do I get a lot of amps? I’ve got resistance. Well, if the resistance goes down, the current goes up. Oh, but if the resistance goes down, the voltage goes up. What is the resistance I can put in this circuit so that the product of the V the I, V=IR, is the largest?” Suddenly, Algebra is pretty cool!

And I thought, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll take all these abstract mathematical concepts, trigonometry … they’ve got to put 45-degree angles on that thing so that the structure, this end and that end, will meet. Okay. They’ve got to be able to measure things—and ratios. Okay. I’ll get mathematics and I’ll get enough of the science, Ohm’s law, Newton’s Law, and so on. Okay, I’ll put all of that around a function that they have to accomplish with it.

Mark: Brilliant! This was a very early application of instructional concepts and approaches that have now become more popularly known as real-world Science, authentic learning activities, hands-on/minds-on instruction, Project/Problem-based Learning; and even maker-based learning!

Dean: The point was that the program used robots because, (a), it could be a basis of kids seeing the power of mathematics and analysis and analytics and (b), because of the robots, some of them will do the mechanical stuff and soldering and welding and screws and nuts and bolts. And they can use a saw and a lathe and a mill. Others will do electronics and they’ll do code. The kids had to build a robot that has to move and run and crash into other robots. The first year we made them, it was sort of like bumper cars and we had great big balls as obstacles that the kids’ robots had to go around.

And we said, “Okay, make it visually exciting to somebody watching from the sidelines. Something, that if the kids work on it, they get to see the result of their analytic thinking.

And we said, “Okay, make it visually exciting to somebody watching from the sidelines. Something, that if the kids work on it, they get to see the result of their analytic thinking. Did they get the right current, the right voltage? Did that motor move? Did it move in the right direction?” But it just seemed to me that robots would be such an open-ended platform for creating different ways to make something that’s visually exciting to a sports fan and audience, and also be open-ended so that kids—at almost any level—could do it. 

To be continued! Watch for part 2 of this interview, where Dean and Mark explore the rest of the story and how FIRST partnered with LEGO to create FIRST LEGO League.

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of ‘Getting Started With LEGO Robotics’ (ISTE). He is a co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system.

 

 

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