Creating Superheroes From Scientists

Dean Kamen Recruits Young Scholars

Dean Kamen is not only an inventor, but an advocate. In 1992, he founded First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization dedicated to popularizing science among young people. In this Web exclusive, Carol Marin talked to him about First.

You hate the idea that you have kids who are paying a little bit of attention to science, but a lot more attention to the Super Bowl.

"If they haven't also developed the capability to read with comprehension and to understand the world around them, they're going to be damned close to unemployable in a very technical world."

"How do we capture and take advantage of this media age, of this glitz age, which has created among kids false heroes, false expectations?"

"Mostly (the media barrage) has distracted them from using those golden years from 5 or 6 years old, to 17 or 18 when you have a lot of time, when you really can learn things quickly....What are most kids at that age preoccupied with? They're not really passionate about things that will matter to them in the future."

"Ironically, this is happening at the worst time in the history of the world, because you know, 50 or 100 years ago, you could make money pushing that plow, or pulling the handle on that machine, or women would make money doing manual tasks in factories."

The Inventor In You
Do you have an invention? Find out how to file for a patent at the U.S. Patent Office site. Out of some 288,811 patent applications filed in 1999, some 169,094 were granted. The processing time in fiscal 1999 was about 12.9 months.

"There's almost no high value jobs left that don't require some technical skill....The U.S. population, which used to lead because of...pervasive public education,...because of all the distractions that we have, that's no longer true."

"I saw so many people concerned, our serious business leaders, government leaders...about what seemed to be happening in a competitive test between the U.S. students at various ages and those around the world. But they all were assuming it's the supply side of the problem: We need more schools; we need more teachers; we need computers."

"This problem is not a supply problem. You can't tell me that the average kid in the United States that cn't read or do rudimentary math just was never availed (of) a book."

"It's not what they don't have access to anymore. It's the fact that they have so many enticing distractions that are just nonsense."

Do you think we've created a culture where we have competing superheroes? And you think the superheroes of today are useless for these kids?

"They can't tell the difference between a hero and a celebrity. And they think that some of the things that happen in the world of sports or entertainment are important."

"How are you going to get those kids to believe that developing the muscle between their ears is really the way they're going to succeed?...Compete for their time and attention by showing them something that they will perceive is every bit as kicking or jumping."

So you're going to take these kids, put them in a gym, give them a robotic kit, and say, 'Kid, this is where heroes are born'?

"How do we give out to the great scientists the Nobel Prize? A clandestine meeting happens in Stockholm....Then they suddenly announce that this person won it. Typically they win it for something they did 10 or 20, or 30 years ago, for something that's very esoteric....Kids certainly can't relate to it. It's somebody as old as their grandparents."

"They don't realize that it's fun to be creative. That it's exciting to invent things....Being creative is one of the things that separates humans from other species."

So that's what you designed First to do?

"What's the equivalent of the NFL in technology?...If...Boeing, or Bell Labs, or Intel, or Motorola, Xerox (doesn't) have young, enthusiastic, excited engineers and scientists that you can...put in front of these kids, that will look as appealing to them as athletes,...we ought to hang it up and go home."

"Let's form the Olympic Committee of Smarts. And let's use your resources and your young people the same way you leverage them organizations to create these other kind of heroes."

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