Dean Kamen Explains Why He Started the FIRST Robotics Competition

Geek Culture

Photo by: Thomas Sly

I had the opportunity on Wednesday to talk with Dean Kamen, entrepreneur, inventor, and philanthropist. Dean is most famous for inventing the Segway Human Transport, but it is his contributions to medicine with portable dialysis and automatic injection machines that have had a lasting impact on our quality of life. His most recent inventions, an efficient Stirling Engine, and an air still that can draw drinking water out of the air, even in desert environments, are also capable of having a large impact on the quality of life for many people.

The one accomplishment thing I admire Dean the most for is the FIRST Robotics Competition and this is what we talked most about during the interview. This article will just touch on the underlying reasons that Dean created FIRST. I’ll go into more detailed history of the competition later as I get more time to write.

To start out the story of FIRST, Dean first talks about our priorities as a society. Modern culture, he explains, is obsessed with sports and entertainment.

We don’t have a national pass-time that’s fun anymore, in baseball, we have an obsession. We have a culture that confuses the cause of our wealth with the result of our wealth and we have so many distractions that are preventing kids from separating what should be an amusement and a pass-time with what should be important to them. [Kids] have the freedom to do what they want, but may not have the judgment to understand the consequences of doing whatever they want, because they are going to get to 17 or 18 years old and be pretty good at bouncing a ball, if they’re the best they’ll make 10 million bucks a year, five of them will.

The rest, he goes on to explain, will have marginal skills and be unable to compete in a global marketplace, earn wealth, or contribute to their country or culture.

His solution to this cultural problem was to form an organization whose goal was to encompass all the trappings of our current culture, the obsession with sports and entertainment and make Science, Technology and Engineering, both a sport and entertaining. Most of all though, FIRST has started to attain that goal. They have made robotics exciting, fun, and most of all entertaining. If you have never attended a robotics competition I urge you to do so.

And that is the “why” of FIRST. I’ll follow this up with two or three more articles covering the history of FIRST and its four competitions.

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