We need to convince kids that smart is cool

Students and their robots from the First Robotics program lead the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
Photo: Adriana M. Groisman
Students and their robots from the First Robotics program lead the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

I believe every young person who has an innate desire to explore, reconfigure, and build has the aptitude for a challenging yet rewarding career in science, technology, math or engineering (STEM). We need every innovative young mind we can find to engage in STEM fields to help us solve some of the world's most complex challenges, like finding a cure for cancer and providing clean water to families in developing countries.

In fact, we need approximately one million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade, if America wants to retain its historical ranking in science and technology. The White House predicts the U.S. will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about one-third annually over current rates in order to fulfill this goal.

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Unfortunately, our kids are not excelling in science and math. American students rank 23rd in science and 31st in math when compared to students in 65 top industrial countries, according to the Program for International Student Assessment. Some may argue that this is a STEM education crisis. I believe it's a cultural issue that's impeding kids from exploring STEM careers and ultimately allowing the U.S. to develop a strong generation of innovative problem-solvers.

If we want kids to passionately study STEM, we need to show them that these fields are just as accessible, fun and rewarding as playing sports. That's why in 1989 I founded First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit that encourages kids around the world to pursue STEM careers via a progression of programs that offer unique robotics challenges while building life-skills. First takes the basics of STEM, applies the excitement of sports and delivers challenges that fit on the playing fields of schools across the globe for students ages six all the way through high school.

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Fortunately, kids' achievements in STEM are starting to receive more mainstream attention: First students and their custom-built robots led the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade this year and and kids from our First Lego League program recently earned a utility patent for their safe-driving invention, the SmartWheel. But we still have a long way to go.

We need to stop blaming our education system for our kids' lack of interest in STEM, and start changing the culture. Let's convince everyone that smart is cool! Let's teach our youth that learning can be hard, but that it is also fun and rewarding. Let them figure out that the fascinating world of nanotechnology is driven by having an expertise in physics, which leads to new victories such as life-saving inventions. Who wouldn't want to achieve that kind of touchdown?

We get the best of what we celebrate and our culture needs to start celebrating intelligence. When smart is finally cool in our pop culture, our kids and the U.S. economy will reap the rewards.

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— By Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen is an inventor and entrepreneur, whose notable inventions include the Segway personal transporter. He is also the founder of First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization aimed at getting more young people involved in science and technology. Follow First on Twitter @FIRSTweets.