Interview report: Dean Kamen | Inventor, entrepreneur, advocate for science and technology, and founder of FIRST

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation

 

Dean Kamen, participated as keynote speaker in the 3rd International Congress of Educational Innovation. As an inventor, holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded the frontiers of healthcare worldwide. He is also the founder of FIRST, an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation of young kids to understand, use and enjoy science and technology (FIRST, 2017). 

Observatory: How can we innovate education in science and technology to make these subjects more interesting?

Dean Kamen: If you said to kids, "We're going to play football soccer tomorrow” and they showed up but there's no field, no ball, there's only a 50-page textbook called “The History of Soccer” and then after that, there's a quiz, to see if they know the rules. But if they never played, never kicked the ball, never ran, nobody would like soccer. Well, isn't that how we teach science? We learn this formula, then that formula, and then there’s a quiz on this formula, and then a test on that formula. But, if you said, "We are going to build a robot” and to build a robot, students got to connect this to that, and need to understand voltage and current, and got to understand how to measure things, cut things and assemble things. And then, my robots are going to run around, and if I didn't do it right, it's going to fall apart like the first time you tried to kick a soccer ball and missed. But then you practice, get better and come back, and you see your robot doing more, and that's exciting, and you're proud of it. 

So, when they say they're teaching science in school, they're not teaching science, they're teaching the history of science. They learn Isaac Newton, 1687. They learn Archimedes, 275 BC. They learn facts. They learn names. They learn formulas. To this day, I don't remember which law is which. I don't care what the label is. I know what the laws mean and how to apply them. I believe that we should stop teaching the history of science. Science isn't about studying those guys.

When they say they're teaching science in school, they're not teaching science, they're teaching the history of science. They learn Isaac Newton, 1687. They learn Archimedes, 275 BC. [...] I believe that we should stop teaching the history of science. Science isn't about studying those guys.

Observatory: What is FIRST?

Dean Kamen: FIRST stands for (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation of young kids to understand, use and enjoy science and technology. It was founded in 1989 and has served more than 300,000 young people, ages 6 to 18, in more than 60 countries around the globe. My goal in starting FIRST was to create a generation of kids that embrace technology and see it for what it is: a powerful tool to fix the world and give them great careers. Studies have shown that FIRST alumni are highly motivated to pursue careers in science and engineering (FIRST, 2017).

Observatory: What are the competencies that you see in children who have experienced the FIRST program and that differentiate them from other kids?

Dean Kamen: People used to tell me, "Dean, you're not going to teach kids how to be a roboticist in six weeks." And I'd say to them, "You're exactly right." Of course, I don't plan to do that. In fact, FIRST, as I said today, F-I-R-S-T, education isn't even in our name. We are For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. If the kids recognize it, if they are inspired by it, they'll go get an education. It will take them 10 years. We're not going to give them an education. That's what schools are for. To answer your question, they have self-confidence and self-respect. They understand how to work with teammates even when they disagree with them. I think FIRST is a model to show kids what the world could be like if people are open-minded and willing to learn and work hard, and willing to fail and pick themselves up and try again. That's what they learn.

Observatory: What inspires you to work on an invention, and how do you decide what project or idea to work on?

Dean Kamen: It's very hard to explain to somebody why we worked on a specific project. But when you look at all the projects we work on, I think the safest thing I can tell you is, there are so many big problems to work on, we end up sort of stepping onto one if we think our engineers are uniquely qualified to do it better than anybody else, based on their experience. And maybe we believe we need to do this one because nobody else will do it. So, we don't work on any project unless, fundamentally, we believe we're going to make a big difference. If we do this and it happens right, it'll make a big difference to the people that need it.

For example, we worked on a water machine because we can help the largest number of people on this entire planet. It's the biggest problem, there is no water. But, also, we worked on a prosthetic arm for a few hundred soldiers, and we hope they won't need anymore because we hope to stop sending them out into battles to get their arms blown up. So, I guess a long answer to your question is, we finally pick the project to work on mostly if we think we're really going to make a difference. If we had to compete with five other companies for the project it means we don't need to do it, they'll solve this problem and can take care of it. What I’m saying is I'm not in this to compete.

Observatory: What personality trait makes you who you are?

Dean Kamen: I guess curiosity about the world is what's always driven me, believing that if you think about it long enough you'll understand it, you'll have an insight, you'll figure out how to solve a problem if you really understand it. So, curiosity is a driving force in the world of innovation.

Observatory: Do you think higher education is efficiently delivered? 

Dean Kamen: I think it could be made more effective. It could be made lower cost, and therefore it could be delivered to millions more people that desperately need it. I believe there are many things we could do to make it different. For example, I would make sure kids use the education piece for the education. In other words, I think people confuse education and training, and we use schools to do the training, and we should use schools to do the education. And for the training, schools should say to students, "If you want to be able to do this, here's this program." It's Word, or it's Inventor, or it's some software program. "Go study this and learn how to use it." You don't need a professor to train you to use this program; you just need to practice it. That's training. And then come to class and use the classroom for the education of taking your training and doing something valuable with it.

Observatory:  What's your opinion about this 3rd International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Dean Kamen: I see a lot of people from Tec de Monterrey and its 26 campuses and 37 high schools, and others that came from other institutions in Mexico and other institutions around the world, including South America. It seems like there's a lot of energized people, energized universities, energized companies, energized parents, energized professors, and energized government people that really get it. They realize that if they want the future to be really successful and exciting for these kids and for their country, they've got to double down on tech, and they've got to give kids the inspiration and the tools to make tech part of their future. And, so far, that seems to be the mission of this convention, and that's pretty exciting.



References
FIRST (2017). Founder, FIRST President, DEKA Research & Development Corporation. http://www.firstinspires.org/about/leadership/dean-kamen

Images: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciietec2016/albums/72157677668877466                                                             

Interview report: Thomas Frey | Executive Director and Senior Futurist at DaVinci Institute

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation

 

Thomas Frey is the Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute and Google's top rated Futurist Speaker. He participated in the Second International Congress of Innovation in Education (2015). Thomas Frey raised a number of predictions for 2030. He estimates that the average person will be able to: print their own clothes, live in a printed house, receive packages delivered by a drone, have more than one robot, use a self-driving car, among others predictions.  

Observatory: What are the skills students will need to tackle challenges in the future?

Thomas Frey: The skill set that we're going to need in the future is going to shift into different areas. Some of them will be about being able to work with virtual reality, augmented reality, and big data and also thinking three-dimensionally is I think an important skill for the future. All of these new industries that are being developed are going to shift, morph and change over time and so we have to continually expand our thinking learning techniques and tools that didn't existed five years ago.

So as a technology evolves let's just take 3-D printing as an example, 3-D printing is still very crude right now, It's very slow, very methodical and the number of materials that we're able to use with 3-D printing is starting to expand very significantly.

Thomas Frey at  CIIE 2015 . 

Thomas Frey at CIIE 2015

And so as this expands, then we're going to have people that have to become very good at understanding what's the right material to use for this particular application, I want to create this one part specifically, maybe it's a part for a jet engine and a jet engine has lots of forces on it that has heat issues, it has pressure issues, it has vibration issues.

And so you're going to need just the right composite material for that particular application. Having people that know the right material to use at the right time, that's an interesting skill set that probably nobody has right at the moment. And so as our options increase, then it's going to be more complicated over time. So, somebody that gets into this field, which is kind of metallurgy field, a new product material, new material development field as that expands over time, the possibilities are many in different directions.

The biggest challenge that educators will face in the future is staying up to date constantly. Every morning I wake up and say, "Okay, what has changed today?", If I don't spend at least two hours every day doing research, I'm going to get le behind.

Observatory: What is the biggest challenge that educators will face in the future?

Thomas Frey: One challenge I have is staying up to date constantly. Every morning I wake up and say, "Okay, what has changed today?", If I don't spend at least two hours every day doing research, I'm going to get le behind. And that's the same with the professors, whatever they're teaching. There are new tool sets, new techniques and there are new challenges in every profession. They need to be on top of all that. And so, we have all the tools for doing all this research. You can do it right at home, you could just work late at night and do that research. But you need to be committed to doing that. So, if you created a curriculum ten years ago and it hasn't changed, you really shouldn't be teaching anymore.

Observatory: How can we develop the spirit of innovation in future generations?

Thomas Frey: I think challenges need to be more relevant. I think you need to actually put some real world problems in there that they're solving. And actually, I love the idea of having prizes that whoever does the best job, they get to claim the victory. I don't believe in everybody getting the participation ribbon. I think everybody needs to be recognized for what they accomplish. By putting these challenges together, I think that stimulates a lot of interesting thinking. And it creates natural alliances between the students, it tells you how to work on teams, and that sort of things. It ends up being lots of communication issues that you're dealing with, lots of project management issues, and all of this gets tied in with a challenge like that.  


Images:
2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciietec /page12 2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: http://ciie.itesm.mx/es/revolutionizingthinking- about-the-future-of-education/

Interview report: Tyler DeWitt | Research Scientist and Professor

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation

Tyler DeWitt participated in the 2nd International Congress of Educational Innovation organized by the Tecnológico de Monterrey. He is a research scientist, high school teacher and digital content author. Tyler holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology from MIT. As a teacher he has been dedicated to developing educational models that encourage critical thinking and creativity using the art of storytelling.

Observatory: What is the most important skill a student must develop to face the challenges of the future?

Tyler DeWitt: There are so many, but in my mind as a scientist, are scientific reasoning skills. I think students really need the ability to look at information, to look at data in the world around them, and be able to make sense of it, to make logical conclusions based on information that they see in the world.

One of the most important challenges teachers face nowasays is that they need to teach students how to think, not just how to memorize.

Observatory: What are the most important challenges that teachers face nowadays?

Tyler DeWitt: There are so many challenges for teachers. The one that is most important for me is teaching students how to think, not just how to memorize. These are two very different skills. And I think traditionally a lot of education has focused on memorization, learning lots of lists of definitions and facts. That can be important because you do need a foundation in some basic knowledge, but once a very basic level of background has been taken care of, that's when teachers need to shift their educational focus, and start teaching students how to think through problems, how to engage in creative problem solving and critical thinking and all that sort of thing.

Observatory: What has been your experience in the 2nd International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Tyler DeWitt: There are so many different people all over the world engaging education in very different ways, and it's a great opportunity to come together and talk about what they're doing in their own corners of the world.


Images:
2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciietec 2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: http://ciie.itesm.mx/es/tyler-dewitt-teaching-science-as-storytelling-how-engaging-students-in-the-process-of-authenticsience-can-bring-relevance-engagement -and-excitement-to-the-classroom/