[Web Informant] 8 October 2009: Making science a spectator sport

David Strom david at strom.com
Thu Oct 8 10:45:41 EDT 2009

Web Informant, 8 October 2009: Making science a spectator sport

I had a chance to see Dean Kamen speak last night, and I have to say
he was inspiring. The man, who is known for inventing the Segway
two-wheeled transport, has actually touched millions of people more
directly through a variety of innovative medical devices, including
the first portable glucose injector, better stents for heart patients,
and improved wheelchairs and prosthetic arms.

The occaision was the kickoff of a science festival that brings
together school children, scientists from around the world, and
leading local technologists for a multi-day series of seminars held at
our local science museum. Some of them, such as the session on the
science behind flirting, are just fun. Others present up-to-minute
basic research. There are even a variety of rare Omnimax movies too.
For a geek, it is hog heaven.

Anyway, back to Kamen. He showed us some of the devices that he has
invented over his career. What I found amazing is how down to earth he
is about his creations: yup, I just came up with this thingie, it is
now used by ten million diabetics or hundred million kidney patients.
He wears jeans and work boots — even when visiting the White House to
receive one of his numerous awards or proclamations. Perhaps it is an
affectation, but it comes across as someone who isn’t trying to
impress anyone. You got the feeling that after the speech and when the
theater lights are turned off, he is just going about his business,
coming up with the next great thing.

One of his current efforts is an international science competition
called FIRST that involves thousands of grade school, middle school
and high school students to build various robotic devices and square
off against each other in the grand tradition of any sporting event.
Indeed, that was his original motivation — our society honors and
extols the virtues of athletes, so why not use the same metaphor for
budding student scientists? He has been extraordinarily successful.
Each year’s competition is larger with more teams and more corporate
sponsorship than the last. One of his sponsors’ CEO at a large
aerospace firm put it this way: he told the audience that most of the
engineers are nearing retirement age and he needs to find thousands of
replacements, and find them quickly. So sponsoring FIRST teams isn’t
completely altruistic, it is the best way to develop a farm team and
start locating and encouraging fresh talent. Makes a lot of sense to
me. Kamen now requires his sponsors to kick in four-year college
scholarships too, which is terrific.

Ironically, Kamen was here the day after Lance Armstrong was in town
inking a new deal with Michelob, something else that St. Louis is
famous for (the beer, not Lance.) Kamen also announced last night that
FIRST will hold its final championship rounds in St. Louis starting in
2011. They have outgrown their current digs and he wanted to take the
competition to a city that would be a natural fit for science
buffs.For those of you that aren’t local, this may come as a bit of a
surprise. Not Silicon Valley? Or Austin? Or even Chicago? (That
suggestion drew a big laugh last night.) St. Louis has long roots in
science competitions, stretching back to Lindbergh’s flight and the X
Prize. I am very proud that our region was chosen and look forward to
attending the events.

It is time we considering making science and engineering more of a
spectator sport. We need farm teams, seeding the professional leagues,
we need local venues that will bring out the tailgaters and the
devotees wearing their colors parading around downtown the night
before the big meet. We need commentators that will give us the
play-by-play. We need the winners to be celebrated more than the
annual Westinghouse/Intel scholars or the Nobelists that were just
announced this past week. We need highways names after famous
scientists, not just steroid-laden sluggers. Granted, nerds have come
a long way since I was in high school and couldn’t get a date. But
Kamen showed me just how far we still need to go.

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