We live in a culture obsessed with Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes. Superbowl winners get invited by our nation's president to the White House every year, and career baseball players or football stars score astronomical multimillion dollar contracts.
But there's a movement in our nation that's shifting our focus to science, technology, engineering and math — all of which is just as exciting! It's a movement propelled by [ FIRST ] — a global robotics Olympics of sorts, where the competition is fierce, the journey is nationally televised and the outcome can be a young person's fascination with science and technology turned pro.
Earlier this month, we attended the 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff in New Hampshire with hundreds of others also excited about robotics — the 21st annual event since inventor Dean Kamen founded the organization in 1989. The two-day launch started with a tour of Kamen's sprawling home, which feels more like a museum of human ingenuity. In fact, the entire structure was designed around an old steam engine once owned by Henry Ford.
The event felt personal, because it is personal to Kamen. Hosting the reception in his home, sharing his personal space with FIRST sponsors and students was a memorable experience for everyone involved. That evening Kamen told everyone that FIRST is much bigger than competing robots.
"My metric for FIRST isn't about which robot won," said Kamen during the Friday night reception. "It's whether we can continue to bring together all the desparate pieces of this very free culture where people, particularly kids are free to do whatever they want with their time. Sadly, most kids have all that freedom but not a lot of judgement, and it's easy to distract them in a culture that has lots of distractions."
FIRST, he said, is like a beacon, a guide — and it's becoming a part of pop culture.
"But I will measure FIRST and our success by whether we continue to bring presidents, government organizations, industries, retailers, media and the arts together to celebrate something that is really important. I know these days everybody talks about 'oh it's good because there will be jobs' and 'it's good because of STEM' but you know, I don't think any great innovator, any great technologist I met in my own life or I read about whether it's Wilbur Orville or Thomas Edison, or back in his day, Galileo, I don't think any of these people got up in the morning trying to do something big, something really innovative because they wanted a job. I think you don't have to worry."
The point is much broader than employment, he continued. It's about personal curiosity for life.
"Those people that are in that for this reason, trust me, if we create a generation of passionate, smart, well-educated, informed kids willing to take reasonable risks, educated risks, as they try new things. If we create a passionate generation that understands the power of technology and how to apply it, trust me, they'll have jobs. That's a consequence of what they'll have. If FIRST succeeds, maybe what we will have a a rebirth of society that believes that the future can be, I think it has to be, better than the past."
We couldn't have said this better ourselves. Kamen's passion is infectious. His words inspiring. Hearing political satirist Stephen Colbert, Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am and MIT Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Woodie Flowers speak on behalf of FIRST was also powerful.
They all underscored the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. How do we encourage future generations to value these things, like innovation and problem-solving just as much as entertainment? Flowers said the power to change the world lies in all of us. We just have to tap into our own imaginations.
"Creativity is not a thunderbolt coming out of the sky, it is something that we all have," he said in a video where he broke down the FIRST challenge.
In this spirit, we are sponsoring a few California high school teams this year in both FTC and FRC challenges, and we look forward to the national championship in April. Stay tuned as we follow along with FIRST, the mentors involved and the students it's all focused around. More to come!