Where's the Shaq of science?

Riding the zippy Segway Human Transporter across the stage of the Engineering School’s Wu & Chen Auditorium, inventor and physicist Dean Kamen urged a packed house to “find the Shaquille O’Neal of science and engineering.” The future, he said, depends upon it.

Kamen, the creator of the iBOT stair-climbing and walking aid and many medical devices, was on hand Dec. 7 to receive the School’s Harold Berger Award. Any problem-solving discussion in our society, said Kamen, must involve scientists and engineers. “Until the technical community in this country starts to have a voice … it’s going to continue to slide,” he said.

Clearly, America has slipped behind other nations, at least in number of engineers. Kamen said that while America boasted about 62,000 engineering college grads last year, China and India, combined, had about 3.5 million. “How do we get kids to be as passionate about science and engineering as about sports?” Kamen said. “Let’s build an organization that does for science what the NBA does for basketball.”

That’s actually just what Kamen, founder of DEKA Research & Development, did. In 1989, he created FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization designed to get the next generation of engineers and innovators excited about science.

The organization teams high school students with world-class professionals to build a better robot. More than 20,000 students participate in regional competitions to vie for a slot in the Superbowl of science—the annual FIRST Robotics Competition. Kamen hopes his FIRST program will help encourage young people to pursue a career in science. “Kids want to do what we idolize in this society,” he said.

Kamen said colleges and universities haven’t gotten involved with FIRST as readily as businesses. But at Penn, students have played an active role, according to Dan Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering. Lee says high school students from Haverford to South Jersey have visited the Engineering School’s GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, Perception) Lab to watch robotic demonstrations and take lessons from SEAS students.

Originally published on January 13, 2005