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Inventor Dean Kamen Sounds a Rallying Cry for STEM at SXSW

The Segway creator boldly asks why scientists and technologists aren’t as celebrated as athletes and musicians.

Lots of kids grow up idolizing their favorite football player or pop star, but how many grow up in awe of scientists and inventors like Marty Cooper, the man credited with inventing the cell phone?

For Dean Kamen, a man responsible for many inventions including the Segway, there’s no good reason for STEM professionals to be seen as anything less than rock stars. In fact, he believes that if STEM is promoted in the same way as sports and entertainment are, it can become equally as popular.

“As professionals, as parents, as citizens, the technical community has to be available to reach out to show kids that science is cool, it's fun,” Kamen said while speaking at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. “All the other industries are fighting for the hearts and minds of these kids. We have to be there too.”

In an effort to make STEM cool, Kamen has set up a foundation called FIRST, which is an acronym that stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Each year, FIRST puts on what is referred to as the “Super Bowl of Smarts,” where teams of kids from ages 6 to 18 compete in an impressive robotics tournament for fame and glory.

Kamen has enlisted a host of celebrities, executives and politicians to get behind his cause of making STEM cool, including Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am, who made an appearance at the FIRST Robotics Championship last year.

A Better Way to Learn

But putting celebrity aside, Kamen believes a big part of the problem in getting kids involved in STEM is that the way STEM is taught in school makes kids shy away from it.

Unlike studio art or language arts, where kids are taught that “right answers” in those subjects come in various forms, math and science are often taught in less inventive manners that make kids fear receiving a failing grade above everything else.

“We teach people how to not make mistakes,” Kamen said. “Kids shouldn't think all of the answers to all of the questions are in the back of the book.”

The good news is that despite STEM's checkered history of being seen as uncool by kids, Kamen's unconventional approach appears to be working.

The FIRST foundation has awarded $18 million in scholarships in 2014 and students who take part in FIRST are 50 percent more likely to go to college, he said. These encouraging signs of progress make Kamen more committed than ever to making STEM stars out of young boys and girls across the country.

“Every kid in this country deserves to see what the opportunity or innovation can do for them,” he said.

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Mar 10 2014

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