Saving the World … Through Technology
UA Commencement speaker Dean Kamen will well-known for his inventions, but he is equally passionate about young people science and technology.

By Johnny Cruz, University Communications
May 18, 2009

Dean Kamen is known for his remarkable inventions – such as the Segway Human Transporter and the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics – but he is most enthusiastic about engaging young people in the science, technology and engineering fields.

Kamen on Saturday delivered the keynote speech at The University of Arizona's Commencement ceremony for undergraduate students, an audience he is fervently trying to reach with a message that makes the science and technology fields as appealing to America's youth as the sports and entertainment industries.

His exploits as an inventor and an entrepreneur have landed Kamen in magazines, newspapers and television programs nationwide; however, he is equally passionate about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization he founded in 1989.

Kamen's vision for FIRST is "to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes."

UA undergraduates were challenged by Kamen to use their asset of a college education to help others and address societal concerns, even early in their careers.

"These are very, very uniquely empowered kids," Kamen said during an interview the evening prior to his speech. "They need to take the lead in solving the world's problems."

Through DEKA, his research and development company, Kamen interacts frequently with college students and encourages them to mentor children and adolescents through the FIRST program.

Kamen's philosophy behind FIRST is to use the elements that make sports so appealing – namely teamwork, light-hearted competition, mentoring and public recognition – and integrating sophisticated and complex science and engineering.

"Understanding science and technology allows you to literally understand the world we live in," Kamen said. Just as someone enjoys watching a football game more when they understand the rules and strategy, he said," children will develop a greater appreciation of science and technology the more

The "sports for the mind" approach is paying off. At the recent FIRST World Championships, held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, 20,000 spectators were on hand to support more than 10,000 students from 28 countries as they engaged in several competitions.

About 200,000 students worldwide participate in FIRST programming each year, which includes the:

  • FIRST Robotics Competition, which challenges teams of high school students and their mentors to solve a common problem in a six-week time frame using a standard "kit of parts" and a common set of rules. Teams build robots from the parts and enter them in competitions designed by engineers and other professionals.
  • FIRST LEGO League, a global robotics program for children ages 9 to 14 (16 outside of the U.S. and Canada). Teams of students tackle challenged based on current real-world issues.
  • FIRST Tech Challenge, a mid-level robotics competition for high-school students. It offers the traditional challenge of a FIRST Robotics Competition but with a more accessible and affordable robotics kit.
  • FIRST World Championship, the culmination of the season's FIRST programs, bringing together three separate robotics competitions. The event includes the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship, the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship, and the FIRST LEGO League World Festival.

Kamen believes that the key to effectively engaging youth is honesty. "You can't kid a kid," said Kamen. "You don't just tell them that science is fun. You show them."

Kamen is hopeful that today's youth will consider count scientists and engineers among today's heroes, some of which will likely reside at America's universities.

"As the thought leaders of the culture, our institutions of higher learning need to be pushing harder and harder to get the general public to understand the value of education," Kamen said.

He believes that more scientists will become heroes "by understanding the problems we need to solve and using our understanding to show kids that it really is accessible and it really is fun."

If his campaign to engage youth in the scientific fields through FIRST wasn't enough, Kamen still has a day job – as a developer of inventions he believes will address some of the world's most catastrophic problems.

"We have a lot of big projects that we are excited about," he said, noting new initiatives that are devoted to bringing clean water to the developing world, providing electricity to places where it has never been available and developing medical products to assist people dealing with end-stage renal failure, diabetes and cancer.

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Kamen's notable inventions include:

  • A highly efficient engine to generate electricity and purify water using waste heat. The small, clean, quiet device is capable of generating 1 kilowatt of power. The waste heat from the device can power a distillation device capable of generating 1,000 liters of clean, safe water per day.
  • An all-terrain wheelchair that can climb stairs and lift the passenger to standing eye level. The iBOT Mobility System is a four-wheel device that uses simple commands and body motions to provide an unprecedented level of freedom for users to climb curbs, descend stairs and navigate rough terrain. Also, the wheelchair was designed to give the user the ability to talk to standing persons at eye level, by rotating the wheels and lifting them.
  • An 18-degree-of-freedom robotic arm – the "Luke" Arm – named after the Star Wars character. This prosthetic device was supported by the U.S. Defence Advance Research Project Agency, with an eye to restoring a high level of functionality to the limbs of veterans with upper extremity amputations. With the weight and comfort of a normal arm, the capability to reach over the head and manipulate small objects, control via muscular contraction and tactile feedback, this prosthetic may improve the lives of thousands of amputees.