Podcast: Inspiring our Future Problem Solvers with Dean Kamen

If you are a science & technology fan, Dean Kamen could be your modern-day Thomas Edison, but maybe… his name doesn’t ring a bell for you…

Dean is a celebrity to countless teenagers and twenty-somethings, but he doesn’t have a YouTube channel or smash hit on iTunes or a reality show. Dean is a prolific inventor of game-changing products such as the Segway and the AutoSyringe, but perhaps he’s best known as the founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition & FIRST Inspires Global, international high school robotics competitions.   Think: The Olympics of Robot Creation.

Traveling to his offices in Manchester, New Hampshire, I recently had the chance to meet Dean Kamen for the first time while my colleague Christian Blanc conducted this interview for the Born to Design Podcast.  Christian has known Dean since 1992 when his nearby Central High School fielded a team in the inaugural FIRST Robotics Competition named “Maize Craze.”

As you will learn from this podcast, Dean’s passion is to inspire each student on the world’s 62,000 teams to pursue attainable and rewarding careers in the fields of Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM).  His infectious optimism for tomorrow’s leaders is also tempered by a harsh acknowledgement that without more kids in innovative STEM jobs, our rapidly changing and growing world community might not be able to face its most fundamental problems including famine, drought, and climate change& global health.

Also, be sure to check out all of the podcasts, and subscribe below so you will never miss an episode:

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You can also learn more about FIRST Inspires by going to www.firstinspires.org. There is a ton of great information on how you can get involved to help inspire today’s youth with technology.

SOLIDWORKS is committed to helping FIRST teams succeed, so be sure to learn more about our sponsorship program at solidworks.com/FIRST.

Lastly, if you are a mentor, educator, or want to be one and help our youth with STEM or other ways to teach technology, know that you have a great resource with SOLIDWORKS Education solutions.  We have plenty of free offerings for students so please visit our Education page at solidworks.com/education.

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the podcast.

Dean Kamen 0:00
You think that football players big and strong. Put an elephant on the field. You think that track stars fast. Put a gazelle on that field the only sport that humans compete in the unlimited class, we can build things, we have the ability to take an abstract idea. And with products like yours quickly turn that abstract idea into a physical or electronic model, test it out. And then using the tools of engineering, we can turn that abstract idea into a real solution to a problem.

Cliff Medling 0:32
Hi there. This is the subtle responded side podcast, a collection of inspiring stories about those who create to build invent an engineer new ideas and actual new products. And by the way, they all use solid works. I’m your host Cliff meddling in this episode is titled, inspiring our future problem solvers. My colleague, Christian block had a chance to sit down with Dean Cayman, who you may know as the inventor of the Segway, or the auto syringe or as the founder of first robotics. We wanted to get his thoughts on what it takes inspire today’s youth. Currently, Dean is actively involved in his global initiative first inspires which he feels is crucial for students everywhere to be inspired and motivated by technology so that they can solve the world’s problems. I’m excited to share his inspiration with you today. Let’s jump right in.

Christian Blanc 1:18
You’ve mentioned many times in the past that the problem globally is not education, but rather its inspiration. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Dean Kamen 1:25
A lot of people think the problem this country in the world has is an education crisis. That’s not the problem. It’s an inspiration crisis. We have professional sports in this country football around the world soccer, we have entertainment, we have kids inspired by the worlds of sports and entertainment, to the level of obsession, it takes over their culture. The average kid on the street, even in an advanced country like this can tell you the name of a lot of professional athletes. And a lot of folks in Hollywood asked him the name of a famous living scientist, engineer, inventor, the living with all the technology wearing supercomputers, they don’t know who made it, they don’t know where it came from. The hardware, the software, the electronics, the code, where it come from.

First is about convincing kids that developing the muscle hanging between their ears is the best investment. The trouble is, they love sports and entertainment. So you’ve got to inspire them to develop that muscle the same way sports inspire them to develop the other muscles. The only difference of course, between our sport first and every other sport here is exciting is us. No more, no less. But the only real difference between their sports and our sport isn’t our sport. Every kid on every team can turn pro.

Your company needs thousands, 10s of thousands, hundreds of thousands, as your developers as your internal people, as your customers. You need a world that can appreciate and make use of advanced technologies. And in a world where they’re seeing more superstars from the world of sports and entertainment if you have put them in rows in a school with 25 year old textbooks. That’s not inspiring. It’s not exciting. It’s not even relevant. The facts and those books on relevant that carry on their in their pocket, every fact known to man with instant recall. So we’ve got to stop saying we have an education crisis. We’ve got to make schools exciting places that are relevant to kids, not just after school, when they get to the aspirational sports. We got to make what happens in the schools as well as after school.

Our sport first, as you know, it’s like every other sport, it’s aspirational. You don’t get quizzes and tests. You get trophies. You bring the school band Do you have bring them ask God to bring the cheerleaders. We are not like a sport. We’re not a science fair masquerading as a sport. You’ve been there we are as exciting down tonight. buzzer in the last three seconds, that two minute round. And that double elimination tournament with 64,000 teams from around the world get together we are a sport, but we’re the ultimate sport to sport. We’re humans compete in the unlimited class.

And nothing against these other sports event that football players big and strong. Put an elephant on the field. You think that track stars fast? Put a gazelle on that the only sport that humans compete in the unlimited class, we can build things we have an opposed thumb, we have the ability to take an abstract idea. And with products like us quickly turn that abstract idea into a physical or electronic model, we can test it out. And then using the tools of engineering, we can turn that abstract idea into a real solution to a problem.

You don’t have the muscles to fly. But I haven’t seen a bird at 41,000 feet going Mach point eight, we have the mental tools to create technologies that are awesome compared to anything else we do. This is the one that we got to develop. And we’ve got to convince kids, particularly women and men around this country and around the world, that they should participate in a sport that can give them the same opportunity to see the power of technology that they see when they play other sports.

And what happens when they start getting involved with First at a young age. It’s not that at the end of one six week season, we’ve turned them into roboticist first was never about using kids to build robots first was about using robots to build kids. At the end of the season. Every one of these kids on every team has seen how much fun it is to understand science and technology. They appreciate the power of the tools that companies like yours make. And they leave the end of the season with self confidence, with self respect, with a real understanding of what’s possible for people that develop the muscle hanging between their ears. That’s what first is all about. We inspire the kids to become the people that this world needs to solve this problems.

Christian Blanc 6:00
First, has been around for over 25 years, starting with 16 teams in 1992, and now growing to thousands of teams internationally, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the teams and the kids?

Dean Kamen 6:13
The most exciting thing about first is that even though I started at 28 years ago, with a couple of dozen teams, and now it’s got 64,000 of them every year, what I try to make sure we do, we got to believe our own story, which is you got to inspire kids, and you got to inspire them with cutting edge technologies that are relevant to them.

So every year we make the kids bigger and better. We put more tech in them in the year, first year, we did this, there were no radios, they will wired they had a couple of little mode is there were no sensors. While there was switches, they had a design on paper, and they had a couple of weeks to build something. You look at the kids today, they have the most advanced electronics, sensors, technology, they’ve got the best software these days, kids can design and model and evaluate what they’re about to build physically in 3d space in real time, again, with software that didn’t exist 25 years ago.

But every year I go back to our biggest and best sponsors across every industry and tell them you need to give me stuff to put in these kits that when these kids open these kits, instead of thinking, Oh, it’s this year’s textbook, we need to make sure they open that kit. And they just go Wow, that’s really cool. And frankly, the software tends to be other stuff that changes the most quickly. You know, wheels are still round Gears of still gears shafting linkages, but every year the sensor technology the software gets better and better and better. Which is why every year the kids get more exciting, the robots get more capable, the whole competition gets more exciting because we’re giving these kids and their mentors from 3700 corporate sponsors some of the most cutting exciting tools and ever seen.

Christian Blanc 8:02
Okay, Dean my next question is regarding STEM education stem as well known in the United States, it’s well funded. Kids have the opportunity to take classes nowadays and robotics and computers. How has the first global initiative opened up other educational pathways for international students?

Dean Kamen 8:19
So we started first inspires 28 years ago, and has had phenomenal growth 10s of thousands of teams. But it grew grassroots throughout the United States. And still most of the teams are in the United States. But in the last few years, there have been teams at the championship at the 70,000 seat arena championships, there were teams from 180 countries, that’s pretty exciting. But a lot of the people that have leadership positions in countries around the world have come to me and said, it’s great that you’ve got teams from some of these advanced countries, because the companies that support you are international, and they’ve got people there.

But Dean there are 54 countries in Africa. Those kids maybe be more than others need to see these possibilities. They need to get on track to be part of the next generation of people that can compete in a global economy that can add value in a global economy. And there’s a lot of places around the world that don’t have first and after some number of conversations just a couple of years ago with some global leaders, we said, you know, here’s the model.

Basketball was started as an American sport relatively recently compared to the Greek sports like the marathons, and throwing a discus and a hammer. And for thousands of years, they were the Olympic kind of sports, Greek sports, running and jumping. But even the Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee decided after does us phenomena called basketball became so engaging globally that to stay relevant, the International Olympic Committee decided to include in its International Olympic competitions, basketball.

Now, it uses the US game in the US ball and the US rules now, but they’ve made it an IOC event that one team per country. So people said to me, basically, Dean just like it took the IOC to take the NBA, you know, a couple of dozen teams, but they’re all US based, they said, Dean, the NBA is never going to work at putting basketball in every country in the world is not going to happen, and frankly, wouldn’t be as meaningful is if we could put first in every country in the world make first available to all Kids Worldwide.

Get all the kids around the world to realize they can have a common language of science and mathematics. They can all work together competing with the same issues and their issues on each other. The self inflicted wounds of their parents and their grandparents. The cultural forget about it, the kids of the next generation will share a very common set of issues, global warming, food, water, healthcare, cyber security.

So people said to me, Dave, let’s get first to be adopted internationally, the way the International Olympic Committee adopted the NBA US based basketball. Well, I couldn’t give first inspires to the Olympic Committee, they don’t do robotics. So I set up a second not for profit, a sister organization to first inspires called First Global and I’m happy to tell you that it’s only had one full year and we just finished our full first year of prep. And our competition was in a 30,000 seat Arena in Mexico City on the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympics.

And thanks, by the way to your company, for being one of the companies that helped get this new, first global launched. But we had 193 countries with teams, we had way more countries than the international Olympics. They’ve been added for 125 years. We’ve been at it for two we had in our opening ceremonies in first global the president of the host country President Pena of Mexico. I spoke at the closing ceremonies, the President Elect spoke.

Intel supplied the same drones they used to close the reason South Korea Olympics from nothing first, global became a phenomena. And I’m happy to tell you that we’re already planning next year and the following year. But our vision is now that first global will plant the seeds in every country in the world among all their kids that will get them inspired to do first kind of things. And then just like the Olympics once kids around the world see what they can do with first by having one team from their country at first global then first inspires will start all over the world creating the league’s and the opportunities for kids in every school in every country to learn science, technology engineering in a place that makes it fun and relevant and cool and exciting. We will inspire the world’s kids.

Christian Blanc 13:00
Great, can you tell me a little bit more about how first and solid works have done the tough job of inspiring kids to pursue careers in STEM?

Dean Kamen 13:28
As I’ve said all along first is not about education. It’s about inspiration. It’s in our name for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. You want kids to do any sport they have to see superstars kids in the US don’t play cricket. I wouldn’t blame the gym teachers for that they play the sports, whether a superstars and they play with the most cutting edge technologies.

In order to get kids in this country and around the world. To get excited to get inspired about tech. They need two things. They need to see really cool tech, the software you guys make is pretty cool. And they need to have access to superstars that can do things that will just astound you nobody would watch you and me play basketball. But you can watch the superstars and be amazed by them. There aren’t too many people that would want to watch you play football. But you can watch superstars that can just do extraordinary things.

When kids get to see world class scientists and engineers using these powerful tools to solve problems before their very eyes. It inspires them the same way sports heroes inspire them. So when SOLIDWORKS, shows up with cool technology and mentors to show kids how to use it, it suddenly makes it way more relevant than sitting in a classroom lined up looking at old textbooks. That model won’t work anymore, as schools are competing for the hearts and minds of kids that are seeing a very different world than their parents and grandparents. And we need to show them not just the superstars of other sports and the world of entertainment, we need to show them the technologies and the superstars and the capabilities of technology. And Thanks, you guys are helping us do that.

Christian Blanc 14:54
Dean back at home. I have a 10th grader of my own. And I wonder what you would say to group of maybe 40 10th graders from any country with no teachers, no parents present? What advice would you give to them?

Dean Kamen 15:10
I give all the kids that get involved with first the same advice. I tell them that the most powerful muscle they have is this one. It’s also the one that takes the most time and energy and effort to develop and it’s the only muscle you have that can experience frustration. So I tell them when you try to compete in first you need to understand most of the robots, are probably going to lose. But all the kids can win. And I tell them, it doesn’t matter if you fall down seven times. If you stand up eight.

I tell them if you can start appreciating the power of technology even a little bit the number of opportunities it will open up for you as career options. The fact that it will make you capable of taking on some of the world’s most difficult pressing problems. And being part of the solution. I tell them, be prepared to be frustrated, be prepared to fail. But be prepared to have the biggest and best learning experience you’ve ever had. And while you may not do very well, if you participate properly. And first, you will come away a winner and it will change your life. It will change your future.

Christian Blanc 16:24
Thanks, Dean. Next question. What is the most hopeful and positive message you could give to someone in a first competition or someone considering pursuing a career in STEM?

Dean Kamen 16:35
What I tell the kids in fact is not only to the robots not really matter, it’s the learning experience. I tell them, they’ll the whole culture of first is a word that we’d sort of adopted, it’s a coopertition, you’re cooperating with all the other people out there, because that’s what the real world needs. And we tell them it’s about gracious professionalism, that they can go out there. And they were robots can beat each other up. But the kids have to support each other and help each other.

And I think when you go to a first competition, you see that the kids get it, the parents sometimes are used to the old model of in order for me to win, you have to lose, some of the mentors really get into the tech. But the exciting thing is when you watch these kids around the world work with each other. We were in the Middle East last year. And we were watching a team from an Arab country in the final rounds. In a very tight competition with the team from Israel. At the end of the competition, I won’t tell you which robot one because it doesn’t matter at the end of the competition that kids from both teams ran across the field and hugged each other. That’s first.

Christian Blanc 17:48
What other life or academic lessons to kids learn in first?

Dean Kamen 17:53
So the other thing, the most important thing we tell kids, when they get involved in first is that they’re all going to come away winners. But we also telling you want a taste of the real world of science and technology and engineering and inventing its first we tell these kids, this is nothing but a microcosm. In the real world, you never know what your competitors are going to build. In the real world, you never have enough time to finish your design and build your product in the real world, you ship it. And something terrible always goes wrong at the worst possible moment in the real world. But you don’t have enough resources, and you don’t have enough time and you don’t know what your competitors are going to do. And you have a team of people that’s way too big to have everybody communicating. And this too much anxiety. That’s the real world.

That’s the world that first gets to show these kids. They get on a team. And that’s what they do. They’re really good news, however, is we tell these kids the difference is, it’s a sport. Like other sports, where in the end after yell and scream about wanting your team to win, we all really know it doesn’t matter which team wins a sport. The good news is, it doesn’t matter if you robot doesn’t really win. But we tell them in the real world, you get in that airplane, it’s not a really good idea of the wings fall off, you turn on that tab, you want the water to be clean, and save it hit the switch, you want the lights to come on.

We explain to these kids that the world of engineering has produced a very sophisticated place that we all live in and enjoy. Also, we take for granted all sorts of technologies. Because technology does work. When it’s properly developed and properly implemented. It does work it works so well. It gives us time to play sports and do entertainment. But we tell these kids if you really want to see how exciting the world of technology is, when you have a short time you have to solve a problem. You have to compete with somebody we tell them first is a few weeks to get to see what your whole life could be like if you decide to go down the path of mastering technology and creating a career about solving problems that this world needs solved.

Christian Blanc 19:58
Something that always resonates with me when I’m speaking with students, younger people, and even my own kids, you must make sure to have a passion for what you do. Obviously you do and the people here at deca do for the first age group, are they recognizing their passion for specific subject matters?

Dean Kamen 20:16
You said we want to whether they’re recognizing their passion for things. I don’t believe you’re born with a passion to recognize. I think it’s put into you by your culture. You look at every different culture, you get the best of what you celebrate, you become passionate about things in your culture. I think the whole reason that the world needs first is sports and entertainment have figured out how to capture the hearts and minds of kids and make them passionate about their sport, or their music.

And we as the technical community need to invest in giving kids an opportunity to see the power of Science and Technology and Engineering and inventing so that we can have them develop the same kind of passion for developing that muscle as any of the others. And it is up to the professional community and the technology companies of the world to compete for the hearts and minds of kids when they’re still young, when they can still develop a passion to excel at something that will matter to their future.

Remember, the only sport that these kids are going to play as well that is highly likely to lead to careers is our sport. But unless they get passionate about it, they’ll never get good at it. And if they never get good at it, this world is going to be desperately short of technically competent people.

Cliff Medling 21:36
Thanks for listening today. And remember, if you want to be a mentor and educator or want to help our youth in any way with STEM or other ways to learn technology, please know that you have a great resource with SOLIDWORKS education solutions, we have plenty of free offerings for students and entrepreneurs so please visit our education page at http://solidworks.com/education .

You can also learn more about first inspires but going to http://firstinspires.org there’s a ton of great information on how you can get involved to help inspire today’s youth using technology will be back again soon. With more great Born to design stories at http://solidworks.com/podcast or wherever podcasts are readily available. Until then, keep on innovating.

I really hope that what you heard today has inspired you If you enjoyed it, please head over to iTunes. Search for the Born to Design podcast and leave a five star review so that this podcast will be recommended to more people helping us expand the Born to Design community. Thank you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Cliff Medling

Cliff Medling

Cliff Medling is a Senior Marketing Manager at SolidWorks and the host for the Born to Design Podcast.