Thursday, October 8, 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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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.