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Unread 06-07-2004, 11:59 PM
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IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Sometimes we need a motivational speech from Dean every now and then to keep things in perspective.

-erin
----------------------------------------------------------------------

A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

BY KATHY KOWALENKO


From the Wright brothers to the importance of mentoring youngsters to the secrets of what makes a successful career, inventor Dean Kamen shared his thoughts with The Institute on a wide range of issues. Kamen, president of DEKA Research and Development, in Manchester, N.H., USA, is best known for his Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheeled rolling platform maneuvered by a standing driver.

We spoke to him in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta last April, where we were attending the national championship competition of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) [see "Fired Up By Robots"], a competition for teams of robot designers. Some 7000 high school students from nearly 300 teams had designed and built the robots, which they brought to the finals in Atlanta. Kamen created FIRST in 1989 as a way to spark the interest of young people in science and technology.



A lot of the kids participating in FIRST consider you one of their heroes, but who is your engineering hero?

When I grew up, my heroes were scientists and physicists: Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, and Curie.

My interests span from aerospace to biomedicine, and because we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of flight, I would say Orville and Wilbur Wright are among my heroes today, because they are at the other end of the spectrum from Galileo and Newton.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were “engineers’ engineers.” They took big, heavy cast-iron engines that put out a couple of dozen horsepower and said, “We are going to fly.” To do that, you have to be an optimist, and have a broad base of technical knowledge. These guys had to understand engines, propellers, wings, airfoils, power dynamics, thrust, and control. Today you don’t see many engineers saying, “I do power plants, as well as airfoils and structures.”

The whole field of engineering is so broad that it doesn’t have an individual that stands out. I feel if I named one person as my hero I would discredit those in other fields.



What would you say to engineers to encourage them to participate in mentoring programs for kids?

There are two reasons for engineers to get involved. One is for their personal satisfaction. They simply will be enthralled. Engineers involved in the FIRST competition remember why they themselves became engineers. It’s fun and exciting to do engineering projects this way. You get to build an entire project from beginning to end, and you get to be a mentor and a local hero. You also get to dig back and use all those tools in the dusty attic of your engineering background. Most engineers today in their real jobs are focused on long-term, serious projects.

The other reason is that it’s an engineer’s professional responsibility to give kids some sense of what the future can hold, and what they are missing if they dream their lives away about the world of entertainment or sports. By the age of 17 or 18, these kids will reach an unrecoverable state.

While the engineering profession has earned an A+ for contributing to society, we get a D for communicating to the public and in particular to kids about what is important.

Engineers keep the lights on, literally. We keep the water drinkable, the airplanes in the air and not crashing into each other. The world virtually would stop if all the engineers took a vacation on the same day. I think the engineering profession gets an A+ for creating a standard of living and allowing us to take for granted that the lights are on or the water is fine.

I think engineers have to be a voice to the next generation. They will never be as loud a voice as the world of entertainment or sports; entertainers are masters at it. Engineering will never be as loud a voice as the world of sports, but there needs to be a venue where engineers and scientists can show kids what an engineering career is all about. If professional engineers of the world aren’t willing to tell them about engineering, who will?



How can a professional organization like the IEEE help?

I would give the IEEE an A+ for talking to, among, and between engineers about engineering issues. The IEEE gets a D for having the world understand what it does and how important and successful it is.

For example, when Hollywood gives out the Academy Awards, they invite more than just the people who make and produce the movies. I’d argue that the Academy Awards program is nothing but a four-hour commercial that shows the world what the movie industry does and gets the world to support them. When sports teams induct people into their Halls of Fame, they care that the general public sees their ceremony.

When the IEEE has a big awards event, it’s extraordinary electrical engineers who are telling other extraordinary engineers what extraordinary work they’ve done. The public is unaware of their activities. As a consequence, our culture is dominated by nonsense that it is not sustainable. Where is the voice of the IEEE, the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), the NAS (National Academy of Sciences), and the NAE (National Academy of Engineers)? Where are the professionals who need to have some kind of context for the general public to be involved with and engaged in what they do?

That is a long way of saying the IEEE is a fantastic organization, it’s more important to the world than the National Basketball Association, but it’s less understood and less known, and shame on the IEEE and all the other professional societies for letting that happen.



Part of the FIRST program is teaching kids the soft skills like marketing and fundraising. How important are these skills for kids to learn?

One of the reasons that FIRST has grown so well and so fast is because every kid in a school can participate, from those who want to turn wrenches, write codes, or do the system analysis and coordination, to those who raise funds to get the team to the national event and decorate the machines.

We work to make FIRST a microcosm of the real world of product development. Every company that I’ve seen solve a project says, “We don’t have enough time or money, we don’t know what the competition is doing, and we don’t have enough resources but we’ve got to get the product out.”

In six to eight weeks, these kids are getting a taste of the real world of engineering. They have constraints on resources, time, and budget. They’ve got to organize themselves to build the entire system, ship it, and get it to work.



Do you fault the universities for not teaching the soft skills?

Universities decide on a set of skills to teach. They have too little time to teach students too many things, and—right or wrong—universities specialize.

FIRST is the core of real-world engineering. You either get that robot on the field to score or you don’t. That is what makes the whole program unique. I think kids involved in FIRST who go on to universities have gained a much broader perspective on what engineering is all about. And they would never have gotten that perspective without FIRST.



This year, 23,000 high school students participated in the FIRST competition. Is FIRST meeting your expectations?

The event always exceeds my expectations, but I am saddened by the relatively low number of students participating. While everyone is astounded by our growth—we’re finally in a major national sports arena—I assumed that we would have gotten here in the first or second year. Our growth may be envied but it’s never fast enough for me.



When will you consider FIRST to be really successful?

Five years from today, I want every kid in every high school in the United States to know that their high school has a football team, a marching band, and a FIRST team—it’s a given, its part of the school’s culture. Until we make this kind of activity as attractive as football, the United States will continue to run the risk of a decline in technical talent that we can’t afford.

And the IEEE should be part of a chorus of professional people who understand it is their obligation to get the word out to kids about what is important. Because our culture is full of nonsense, kids simply can’t separate what is important from what is a distraction.



How were you inspired to get into high-tech?

I always liked solving problems. If I am going to take a lot out of this world, I thought I ought to put something back. The best way for me is to create things, which I think is the most exciting thing a person can do. Some people do it by having babies; I do it by trying to find solutions to problems that, if they work, will give people better lives.

I think inventing, creating, and solving problems are important. Most things you do as a pasttime should be kept in perspective. Kids in our country and our culture don’t keep things in perspective. We have major national events for wardrobe malfunctions and shame on us. We get what we celebrate. Let’s celebrate the right things.


http://www.theinstitute.ieee.org/por...aturekaman.xml
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Unread 06-08-2004, 12:58 AM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Billfred says "That's the bomb-diggity!"

I do have to call him, though, on the growth. Growth can be a good thing, but there is a flip side...(quote from www.mrholloman.net)

Quote:
I'm always hearing people say "If you stop growing, you die." Or, "I hope this program really grows!"

Why is growth so coveted? Unrestrained growth is Cancer—really! Cancer occurs when the body gets the idea that it needs to grow. Tumors switch on genes that are supposed to be off, in an attempt to make things happen. Tumors have been found that contained teeth, hair...

You do not die when you stop growing. Growth should not be a goal in and of itself. Every organism should grow until it reaches equilibrium, and then stop.

I'm reminded of a line from The Matrix, when Agent Smith points out that Mankind is the only organism that does not reach this equilibrium—instead, it grows and expands and consumes resources until there is nothing left.
It goes back to the old problem of quality vs. quantity, IMHO. We could get a FIRST team in every high school in the land in five years. But would that be the best thing for FIRST? I'm not so sure. Growing at such a rapid pace (going from some 1000 teams to covering the hundreds of thousands of American high schools) puts strains on everything, from sponsors to regionals to teams that mentor a lot to FIRST itself. You'd need to pretty much rent the Georgia Dome for another week to put together that many kits.

The other big problem is the culture. Right now, FIRST is a (relatively) small, tight community that's willing to help each other whenever they can. If we grow at such a pace, I fear that folks wouldn't be as close, and it'd take a lot of work to get kids out of that "they're out to get us" mentality (which was posted at least once on our message board in hindsight) and into the way FIRST works. Otherwise, things might evolve into a different FIRST, one that I'm not so sure I want to see.

I hope this doesn't turn into a growth debate, but I just don't know whether that kind of growth is healthy.
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Unread 06-08-2004, 10:37 AM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Billfred, I dont think this will become one debate about growth or any of the other issues mentioned here because there's so many issues mentioned. I'm only going to touch on one right now.

I think Dean needs to reevaluate how he feels about the "soft skills". After all, if he tweaked his views concerning the relationship between engineers and "soft-skilled" people, we wouldn't have stuff like this happening (and I dont mean MattK posting ....I mean weak marketing campaigns).

But will this actually happen? Maybe not.....but can we work on fixing it? Absolutley. In 2003, half of students in the program went on to science & technology collegiate programs. What we need to accept as a whole is that the other half isn't trash: they have a strong, personal, greater understanding of why science & technology is cool than most kids their age, and are just as willing to spread the message as an engineering student. They should be as embraced as much as the engineering student - since it's their contact with the program that will bring about the broadening of FIRST into new areas...for those times when the tech field is tapped out.
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Unread 06-08-2004, 11:00 AM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by Billfred
(going from some 1000 teams to covering the hundreds of thousands of American high schools)
Actually, I believe there are just under 90,000 total public schools in the US and there can't be all that many private schools so I'm betting that there actually aren't that may high schools. Maybe 25,000 or 30,000? Okay, now that I look at it even 25,000 is kind of a lot. For FIRST to grow 25 times as big in only 5 years would be absolutely nuts. I say we just let FIRST take its course as it has been and hopefully we will all live to see the day that it reaches every high school.
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Unread 06-08-2004, 02:45 PM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by sanddrag
For FIRST to grow 25 times as big in only 5 years would be absolutely nuts.
Is it really that nuts? In 1995, there were (I believe) 38 teams. In 2004, there were roughly 1000 teams, right? That's 26x growth in 9 years...

Of course, that assumes FIRST can expand at a linear rate... probably not the case. I know around here a lot of schools are hooked up with other (non-FIRST) robotics programs which makes them nearly impossible to recruit. That problem will become more and more apparent as those types of schools represent an increasing percentage of the remaining non-FIRSTized schools.
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Unread 06-08-2004, 03:35 PM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
I think engineers have to be a voice to the next generation. They will never be as loud a voice as the world of entertainment or sports; entertainers are masters at it. Engineering will never be as loud a voice as the world of sports, but there needs to be a venue where engineers and scientists can show kids what an engineering career is all about. If professional engineers of the world aren’t willing to tell them about engineering, who will?
Im not really sure. There are certainly engineers, scientists, and other people that have communicated about the significance of science. Bradbury, Asimov, Clark, and Wells are four people that wrote about the significance of technology. Bradbury even designed Spaceship Earth in Epcot. I recently bought the original Iron Man comics. It sickened me as to how many times the word transistor was used. Transistor powered magnets, transistor powered skates, and even a transistor powered heart (read pacemaker). Then again it could have been because of the writing style of comics during that time. Personally then again there are times when I think that science is vastly undereported in this world. I was reading through my Almaanac and discovered that there were now five forms of matter. I wondered how did I miss that.
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Unread 06-08-2004, 03:51 PM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by Erin Rapacki


When will you consider FIRST to be really successful?

Five years from today, I want every kid in every high school in the United States to know that their high school has a football team, a marching band, and a FIRST team—it’s a given, its part of the school’s culture. Until we make this kind of activity as attractive as football, the United States will continue to run the risk of a decline in technical talent that we can’t afford.
Nothing against kamen or FIRST, but there is one big problem with this. How does he expect a FIRST team in every school if you have a base 6000 dollar entry fee? Not many places can come up with 6+ thousand every year. I think this would become a much more realistic dream if modifications were made so that FIRST did not cost so much. (I'm still waiting for that cost breakdown )
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Unread 06-08-2004, 04:04 PM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by rforystek
(I'm still waiting for that cost breakdown )
If FIRST gave you this cost breakdown...
What would you do with it?

Have you experience running a non-profit organization?
Perhaps you've had some accounting experience?

No?
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by JVN
If FIRST gave you this cost breakdown...
What would you do with it?

Have you experience running a non-profit organization?
Perhaps you've had some accounting experience?

No?
But it's comforting to know that this isn't for pay increases.

well, sort of.
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Unread 06-08-2004, 04:13 PM
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

I think the biggest problem with rapid growth is lack of resources. Not every school has a capable machine shop, and I know of more and more schools cutting funding from classes like wood shop, and industrial arts. My school cut the wood shop about 8 years ago, to redirect funds to other classes. Our middle school is considering making a similar move. We are a vocational agriculture school, and as such do have a rather capable metal shop, but the powers-that-be refuse to allow our team to use it's resources, despite multiple meetings to explain what exactly FIRST is, and what we would require.

Similarly, it's becoming more and more difficult to find sponsors willing to aid the cause, particularly in rural areas. I think that's the biggest problem with rapid growth. Over time, it may not be as big a problem, as new engineers inspired by FIRST join the workforce, either employed by companies or starting their own firms. In either case, these grown up FIRSTers will eventually lead the engineering world, and hopefully continue to spread the inspiration to their local communities, by spawning lego league and FRC teams.

I do think it's great that FIRST is growing, and hope it does continue to reach more and more lives as it grows. However, I do worry if it grows too fast, it may stretch already too limited resources a bit too thin, and it's common sense to know that's not a good thing. Just like a fish can only grow preportional to the size of it's tank, FIRST can only grow as big as the resources supporting it, to ensure the level of comfort necessary to deliver it's message.
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by JVN
If FIRST gave you this cost breakdown...
What would you do with it?
Well, I would like to know where that 6000 goes to, and why it costs so much. I think FIRST should be responsible to us (the customers) to tell us what they are doing with that $.

Just a little reference to what I mean from an earlier post:

First stresses teams being self sufficient organizations, almost your own mini-business. This is where I have a big problem with the price increases. Why?...I’ve asked…is the price being increased so much. People have nicely responded and offered me financial reports and such, but nowhere have I ever found a dollar for dollar breakdown that justifies a need for 1000 extra dollars.

First is our supplier. If you were running a business, and your supplier all of a sudden said that they are increasing your fees by 20%, you wouldn’t just blindly accept that. Your first reaction here would be to demand evidence of why these supplies cost more now. What you would expect in return would be the exact cost of what you were receiving, such as our kit of parts+regional. In order for FIRST to increase the prices such as they are, they need to justify it by showing the cost of the kit+ the realistic cost to them of one team at a regional. Its bad business not to be giving us anything like this, and business in the real world that did this would lose their contracts. The reason they FIRST will never is that they are a total monopoly. No-one else has anything like this, and that is completely understandable. FIRST must respect that, and act responsibly.
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Question Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by Marc P.
... and as such do have a rather capable metal shop, but the powers-that-be refuse to allow our team to use it's resources, despite multiple meetings to explain what exactly FIRST is, and what we would require.
:jaw on floor: Do I want to know why? It's stuff like that that just boggles my mind.
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

Quote:
Originally Posted by Marc P.
...and as such do have a rather capable metal shop, but the powers-that-be refuse to allow our team to use it's resources, despite multiple meetings to explain what exactly FIRST is, and what we would require.
Or as in our instance, being charged 1000 dollars a day to use the school by our own BOE and school system to use the school during off hours.
IE: Those hectic last few days that take up weekends, or fundraisers that would take place on a Saturday.
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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

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Originally Posted by Erin Rapacki

While the engineering profession has earned an A+ for contributing to society, we get a D for communicating to the public and in particular to kids about what is important.


I think engineers have to be a voice to the next generation. ... there needs to be a venue where engineers and scientists can show kids what an engineering career is all about. If professional engineers of the world aren’t willing to tell them about engineering, who will?


When the IEEE has a big awards event, it’s extraordinary electrical engineers who are telling other extraordinary engineers what extraordinary work they’ve done. The public is unaware of their activities. ... Where is the voice of the IEEE, the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), the NAS (National Academy of Sciences), and the NAE (National Academy of Engineers)? Where are the professionals who need to have some kind of context for the general public to be involved with and engaged in what they do?
What Dean Kamen SHOULD realize (read the Code Ginger book to see what I mean) is that many engineers CAN'T communicate their activities, because they are involved in "secret," "proprietary," or otherwise clandestine activities! Whether these projects involve working for the defense industry, or developing new products, the government and corporate leaders are PARANOID about "the enemy" (Russia, China, or Honda, to name a few) getting hold of the latest technology and using it to beat us in a war or in the marketplace. Actors and sports figures, on the other hand, are SUPPOSED to show off their skills.

A personal example:

When I was growing up, my dad was an engineer for Hughes Aircraft Company (Southern California, aerospace industry). He worked there something like 25 years. In all that time, the company held open houses exactly twice, that I was able to attend. I actually remember seeing my dad's office ONCE in his entire engineering career! Most of what I knew about Dad's work involved carpools, lunchtime bridge games, or practical jokes. Later, when Mom was taking programming classes at the same time as my older brother in college, dinner table conversations usually revolved around the difficulties of computer programming, so my sister and I were always left out of the conversation. I had no idea of what my dad was paid to do, other than working with computers, because he was FORBIDDEN to speak about his actual work (as were DEKA employees before the Segway was revealed to the public).

When I was little, I asked Mom what Dad did for a living. She replied that he used to be an electrical engineer, but now he was not exactly an electrical engineer any more. She couldn't or wouldn't explain to me what his occupation was. The only "work" I ever saw him do was electronics, carpentry, or home repair projects in our garage workshop. (I didn't know much about electronics, except that Dad had a stock of little tiny cylinders with wires coming out the ends, and they had little prettily colored bands on them. I thought then that they were transistors, but actually they might have been resistors--or something; I don't really know. I had to use two of them for a high school physics project in our house, which my parents later remodeled over.)

Finally, when I was in my early thirties, someone I had just met "by chance" told me that my dad, who had just been "retired" by his company, was a package designer! --Not marketing, but electronics device packaging, in case you didn't figure that out. (This person I met was none other than Ric Roberts, who, along with his two kids, has been heavily involved with FIRST and Team 330. Thanks, Ric, for communicating what my own family forgot to tell me. Moreover, you definitely deserved that Volunteer award this year!)

My point is:

It's not just the engineers' fault. Under these working conditions, how can they communicate the excitement of engineering to outsiders? Can anyone blame me for having zero interest in becoming an engineer, even though I'm a creative person, too?

No wonder my husband got sucked into FIRST--it's like flypaper for him!

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Re: IEEE: A Call to Action from Dean Kamen

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Originally Posted by rforystek
In order for FIRST to increase the prices such as they are, they need to justify it by showing the cost of the kit+ the realistic cost to them of one team at a regional. Its bad business not to be giving us anything like this, and business in the real world that did this would lose their contracts. The reason they FIRST will never is that they are a total monopoly. No-one else has anything like this, and that is completely understandable. FIRST must respect that, and act responsibly.
If you were running a business, and every year you went further & further into debt.... but didn't do anything about it because you had a lingering hope that help was on the way: would you go on forever without raising prices?

FIRST has grown into something wonderful, but direct funding towards the FIRST organization as a whole hasn't grown along with their need for new employees and Regional expenses. Sometimes, Regionals aren't able to raise all the funds they need... so FIRST steps in (they really have no choice on the matter). FIRST needs to pay off a few debts because of this, also... they'd like to improve customer service by hiring a few more people.

Everyone at FIRST works really hard, but they are all stretched thin and their computers are old. These additional funds will help the program in many ways.

ByE

erin
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