Recently (the amazing) Ken Patton posted a transcription on Chief Delphi. This is not the first time it’s been posted, but I hadn’t seen it in a few years.
I thought it was worthy of re-posting here on my blog so I don’t “lose” it again. Worth a read.
Portions of Speech by Dean Kamen
1998 FIRST Competition Kickoff Workshop, January 10, 1998
The Center for New Hampshire, Manchester, NH
[imperfectly transcribed from a videotape]
I don’t know how many ways to try and continue to say it. . . What this organization is about is not education per se. I heard a lot of people, even last night, and I think they mean well, and I understand what you’re saying, there needs to be a balance, but I heard people saying “well sure that other team did great, but that’s because the engineers did all the work. The kids didn’t build the robot.” I have to tell you, FIRST is not an educational institution. Its okay if the kids build the whole robot, its okay if they don’t touch it. FIRST ought to be to education what the NFL or the World Series is to little league.
Just do the mental experiment in which there is no professional football, there is no little league. Do you think that little kids at the age of six, seven, and eight are going to get up and spend hours exercising, striving to get better and better at what would become a cardiovascular exercise running up and down a field? Imagine how many kids would spend those kinds of hours practicing basketball if there was no Michael Jordan.
The harsh reality is this country doesn’t have an NCAA of smarts or Olympic Committee of brains. We don’t have people as well known as Michael Jordan doing little things like inventing CAT scanners, curing diseases, putting a man on the moon. You and your companies are those people.
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You can’t expect [kids] to get to eighteen or nineteen years old and decide “now I’m going to become capable of creating wealth or adding value. Its too late. . .
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We’re in unusual times. There’s no way left without any intellectual value that you can add almost any value. The world’s too competitive, there’s a few billion people out there willing to do the menial jobs in other labor markets. Its easy to move funds, goods to the lowest common denominator for manufacturing.
If this country is going to continue to sustain itself as the one with the highest standard of living, best health care, best ____, all of its citizens have to be able to participate in creating wealth, and not being a drain.
And you all know that nobody gets to seventeen and says “I think I’ll take up basketball or football. I’ll go to college and do sports.” If you haven’t mastered it by seventeen or eighteen you’re all done. And trust me, developing analytical skills and the basics, whether is geometry, or causality, understanding the determinism of nature, kids have to start to understand that earlier and earlier. But they need the desire to do that. They need to understand that it is doable.
And why do they have sports heroes? You figure it out. Turn on the television right now, or any time of the day or night. The great American lie has been sports figures - they’re young, they’re attractive, they’re healthy, they make a million dollars . . . a week.
You sit there and you wonder, why these inner city kids, we don’t live in a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ generation. We don’t live in a place where kids go “yeah, thats fun to do that, but I have about as much chance to make money as a professional athlete as I do of winning the state lottery.” Those are the facts; you have a greater chance of winning the state lottery.
Probably most of you as professionals, and around professionals, don’t really live daily with the concept and reality that there are a lot of kids that have never met an engineer, never met a scientist. They understand what Michael Jordan does - he dribbles, he throws. They believe that they get better at that by working at it. And they believe that they can do that. They can understand that. Its attractive to them. And they put effort into it.
This whole organization is there to compete for the minds and the time. We’re trying to compete with the distractions that have taken over the American culture. And we’re trying to give kids some idea of whats important, and give them the opportunity to spend some of their time trying to develop a skill set that will allow them to be successful and productive.
This country spends six hundred million dollars a year on education. Nobody’s going to incrementally spend a lot more than that. The irony is most of the large companies here give away more scholarship money, they give it away, out of their pockets, every year, than the entire profits of the NFL, the NBA. But to most inner city kids, to most kids that don’t have professional people around them all the time, they don’t know it, they don’t access it, they don’t believe it. And they spend some critical years of their life wasting their time on almost hopelessly difficult dreams.
And the premise of FIRST was, if the teachers, some of who hopefully are here today, have students that show up in school as enthusiastic to learn as they show up with the enthusiasm and drive to get on the varsity sports team, the rest of it will follow.
And there is no organization whose total focus is creating demand among kids. Our culture creates it for these other things. But again, if you want little kids to play sports, you don’t show other kids, you show them the best there is.
Well, where is it, where are the best scientists, engineers, technology people? I’m looking at them.
And how do we get those people to work, not pushing into schools, adopting schools, confrontational with teachers, complaining that our schools aren’t working. . . Anybody whos visited an inner city school lately knows why they’re not working. We’re not only asking the teachers to teach, they’ve got to do things like make sure there aren’t guns in the classroom, drugs in the classroom.
The culture doesn’t value the educational institution. The gym teacher, the football coach isn’t there to inspire these kids to put in the work - thats a given. Our culture does that for them. All they have to do is deal with the supply side of the problem. And it works. Whether its an affluent school or an inner city school. In fact, now, it works, because they think its a way out, the inner city schools produce the great athletes. The trouble is we only need a few hundred of them a year. And what are all of the rest of them to do?
So the point of FIRST is really to do for important things what our culture has done for so many unimportant things. And the way our culture does this is it makes superheroes out of unimportant things.
I mean, I love sports. You’ll notice I have my own baseball field in my backyard. I have a tennis court, baseball. . . but its because its fun. Its a pastime. It has to be in its appropriate place. The Super Bowl shouldn’t bring this country to its knees in January, when nobody knows who’s winning the race to the room temperature superconductor.
Again, the point of FIRST is to create, and do, for intellectual and technical things, what the Shaquille O’Neals and Michael Jordans do for unimportant things. And it give kids an opportunity to see real role models, real heroes, not celebrities, but real heroes. So they can finish up the six weeks and say “I can do that. I want to learn these things. I’ll put effort into that. I want to be like . . . you people.”
And it is literally the only organization that I know of that’s trying to do that.
One of the problems is that we live in a media age, and only things that happen on a national scale work. Well, when science fairs happen, its a plastic paramecium on a bridge table in the basement next to the gym. Then they go home and flip on the Super Bowl.
If we did this event and the winners didn’t go to Disneyland, if we did this event and there was no “super bowl” for the kids to think about, if it wasn’t really competitive, if they weren’t watching the world’s best technology people the way they watch Shaquille, it wouldn’t have an impact.
So I know its expensive on a per student basis that you touch. And why do they have to build it here, fly over here, fly over there? The point is not even the giant companies individually, all of whom have great philanthropy programs, can impact the kids because they’re competing with things that have national scope. And when you put all of these giant companies together, your companies, and allow these things to develop the same kind of scale as these distractions that kids see, the hope is, those kids will work harder, the kids around them will see it, the infrastructure which we now see is starting to develop will build around the country. These kinds of stories will happen more, and the result will be a change in the culture of the United States.
Which, if it doesn’t happen fairly soon, will become a banana republic with very few people that have the power to create incredible wealth. We have an unstable situation. Those people that really understand technology, computers, play on the net, can create biotech solutions, changing the human genome, those people will have unbelievable power. The trouble is in a democracy everybody gets one vote.
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It is up to you people, because sports figures are not going to turn these kids around.
The fact is, if FIRST does things right, we really will have the organization. The Olympic committee of smarts, each of you. You are the Michael Jordan that the kids can meet and actually can emulate and get some sense of whats possible, whats really possible for them. And maybe get attractive enough to get their attention away from that stuff is what we’re trying to do.
And this is a long way of saying to you, so if you think that the point of this is another soap box derby and you’ve got to make sure that the kids did this and that, you’re not going to get their attention. Again, imagine them having to learn to spend ten years learning to play football without after having seen professionals do it. You’re kidding yourselves.
You don’t have to go into these schools to see whether they’ve got a hot glue gun and rubber bands. You can bring them out to your factories, let them see what its like to use a 5 axis CNC laser cutting [machine], a wire EDM machine. Let them see what real analytic capability can do when you’re trying to solve a design problem.
You are here, as the name says, FIRST, for INSPIRATION and RECOGNITION of science and technology. We’re not asking you to be boastful. We’re not asking you to walk around and say how great you are. You don't have to. Just go about your business, but let the kids in. Let them see it, let them understand what power there is in knowledge, what power there is when you’re creative.
And maybe they’ll still not know the name of the guy that invented the CAT scanner, or the guy that did something that is much more important to their standard of living than a guy that can kick a ball 63 yards. But they’ll know something more important than that. They’ll know that they can do this. They’ve seen real people do it. They’ve seen scientists aren’t all old, antisocial, white, males, with German accents, with _____. But they’ll see scientist, engineers, technicians as people that are enthusiastic about what they do.
You’ve picked a profession that is the only one that creates wealth. And once in a while, we keep a little bit from ending up in the hands of the lawyers and the MBA’s and the junk bond dealers. We may not keep it all, but we create it all. The kids have to know that.
From the first human that learned how to roll a log or start a fire, until today, the standard of living of every culture on this planet has been determined by the technical competence of its people. All over the globe right now, everybody is breathing the same air. Why are some people in unbelievable poverty and some people not? Because they’ve conquered new technology, figured out how to master the resources around them, and turn worthless things, one was silicon, into a microprocessor; a pile of chemicals into a cure for cancer. Kids don't understand that. And you have to show them that.
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What we need is to efficiently use all the resources that we have in our education system. We owe it to the teachers to deliver students that are enthusiastic. And in America, the government can’t do that...
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The government in this country is not involved in creating its heroes and creating what kids aspire to do because this is a free country. Again, that’s the good news, the bad news is the inefficiency of democracy. The bad news is, kids are free. They can spend the first fifteen years of their life on unimportant things, unimportant ideas, dribbling, jumping, ... You have to change that. And I hope you will.