Sounding the alarm on science education

One of the first and surely the best known of the high-tech entrepreneurs to make Manchester’s Millyard District his corporate home, Dean Kamen is founder of DEKA Research & Development Corp., the Science Education and Enrichment Museum and the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition.

His inventions include the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, a portable dialysis machine, the iBOT stair-climbing mobility device and the Segway Human Transporter. He is a winner of the National Medal of Technology and a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Q. You have said the U.S. is in danger of losing its position as world leader in technology. Why is that?

A. I think anyone would have a hard time denying that, by almost any measure, the U.S. is falling drastically behind not only the other developed countries, but the developing world in terms of how many engineers we’re producing per capita, how many scientists we’re producing per capita, how much of our economy, government and private sector on a per capita basis, we’re devoting to inventions.

Q. How many engineers are we producing?

A. Last year in the United States, we graduated among all engineering degrees — electrical engineering, mechanical engineering civil engineering — 72,000. China alone graduated half a million. We used to not even think of China and India as potential competitors. It was Germany, Great Britain, Japan who were our competitors. We are being dwarfed by the scale of growth of the developing world.

Q. Is there a reason we don’t have more engineering students?

A. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. I think the overwhelming leverage point that we need to focus on is celebrating science and technology in a way that makes it attractive to women and minorities and to all kids around this country. Because otherwise, while other countries use other means in more regulated, regimented societies to get a bigger and bigger pipeline of kids becoming experts in technology, we will sit here and make more and more kids devote their time to what really are nothing but pastimes.

Q. You mention specifically woman and minorities. Why?

A. Women and minorities are so under-represented in science and technology. Look at the number, the percentage of patents that are filed by women. If you look at the number of practicing engineers that are women as a percentage of our whole workforce, it’s really very small. And now that America only represents 3 or 4 percent of the global population and giant countries all over are producing hundreds of thousands of engineers to compete with us, it’s really dumb to take half of our people and say, “You don’t even want to try. You don’t want to be on this team.”

You’re not going to be able to compete in a global economic environment if most of your people aren’t even allowed to be on the team. So we need to particularly work at getting more women and minorities to get past the stereotype that math and science and inventing are somehow not for them.

Q. Are our schools to blame in some way for our “falling behind,” as you describe it?

A. I don’t think the schools are to blame, because the schools are not the people that create the culture of the country.

You know, it’s not up to the gym teacher to somehow create so much passion in kids that they’ll show up early, they’ll work out all summer, they’ll stay after school, they’ll do all these things to get on the varsity team. What gives kids the drive to do that is our culture that celebrates sports almost to an obsession. And when you have a culture that’s free like our culture, you get what you celebrate.

Q. So how does the culture need to be changed?

A. The culture needs to be changed so that kids show up at school as passionate about finding a good math teacher as a football coach. It has to be changed so that parents are far more interested in how their kids are doing in their math class than how the school is doing in its ranking in the soccer tournaments.

I think it’s naive and unrealistic to simply think that you can change the test or what you measure or change the curriculum or change some bureaucratic condition and that will have a significant outcome on what our kids put their time and energy and passion into doing. We need a wholesale change in the values that we impart to kids.

Q. So what do all those new scientists and engineers in the developing countries indicate about our future?

A. I think it’s great that the rest of the world is becoming more educated. I just think more than ever America has to realize that we need to be in this race with everybody. We’re a small country in terms of the number of people we have compared to the rest of the world. All of our people need to be extraordinarily well prepared to compete. Because we’re at the top of the heap, we’re tremendous consumers of everything from energy to every other kind of resource, and if we want to continue this kind of lifestyle we have to earn it by being the most creative, the most inventive people. And that happens through education.

Q. What was your in-school experience like? Did you enjoy school? Were you inspired by it?

A. I had a lot of trouble with school. I would get very deeply into something and the rate at which school would take you from English to math to history, you really didn’t have the time to think about, to digest, the ideas. And so I would get very deeply interested in something and didn’t have time to really explore it. Understand that I’m a very slow learner.

Q. People might be surprised to hear you describe yourself as a slow learner, given all you’ve accomplished.

A. Well I just work hour after hour in learning (something). And I try to learn it very well.

Q. What do you believe you’ve accomplished with FIRST?

A. This year we had 7,600 schools that got exposed to the excitement and wonders of science and technology, each with a corporate sponsor. We had 33 cities holding events for us, and last month we took over the Georgia Dome, the home of the 1996 Olympics. The entire Georgia Dome was ours for this celebration of technology and education, learning and understanding of the future. It gave tens of thousands of kids an opportunity to see a part of life that they never would have seen otherwise, and it gave them opportunities to make decisions that will affect what they do with their lives and what careers they will investigate.

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