A New Playbook for an Innovative Edge

If the man who invented an insulin pump, the iBOT wheelchair and the “Luke Arm” prosthesis can’t stop the controversy over whether America has lost its competitive edge in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), then perhaps no one can.
Whether successful or not, inventor and not-for-profit FIRST founder Dean Kamen is giving it his all, as evidenced by the thousands of kids who have conquered hundreds of competitive challenges through his organization. Case in point: kids from FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and their robots were chosen to lead the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, invited to the White House Science Fair on multiple occasions and earned investment money for their invention from ABC’s hit TV show Shark Tank.
So, why robotics?
“Robotics is the 21st-century sport for the mind,” says Kamen. “If we want kids to study STEM, we need to show them that these fields are just as accessible, fun and rewarding as playing sports. And it’s the one sport where everyone can turn pro.”
The need to push this idea is clear from the data from the Program for International Student Assessment, which show how U.S. students stack up against their competition in 65 top industrial countries:
• 31st in math.
• 23rd in science.
Combatting these stats are kids involved with FIRST (boys and girls, ages 6-18) who take on robotics challenges and invention programs while increasing their problem-solving skills.
President Obama celebrated students at the recent White House Science Fair for their innovative ideas. One participant in particular, Parker Owen, was honored for his invention, the Cycle-Leg—an inexpensive prosthetic made from a single recycled bicycle.
“For all of the problems in the world, FIRST to me is a solution,” Owen says. “They are shaping and encouraging the next generation to be contributors rather than consumers.”
Companies are also looking to FIRST to fuel their workforces with inventive problem solvers—more than 2,500 corporate sponsors include Boeing, Google, Qualcomm and United Technologies.
And FIRST puts its money where its mouth is: The organization offers more than $20 million in scholarships. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that its alums accounted for almost 10 percent of the entering freshmen class in 2013 at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—truly a great testament to why the organization works.
“FIRST isn’t just a robotics program, it’s a life-changing experience,” says Emily Stern, who is studying mechanical engineering at MIT.
For more information, visit www.usfirst.org.
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