"Let's run it through from the top. This is going downhill."
Dean Kamen is standing on a six-inch riser in an almost empty room in the basement of Westwind, his 32,000-square-foot house in Bedford, New Hampshire, trying to get this thing right. It's crunch time for FIRST, the high-school robotics competition Kamen founded two decades ago in an effort to get kids jazzed about engineering, to make science as sexy as sports. (FIRST = For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)
In less than a month, 42,000 students on 1,700 teams will gather at 43 regional championships to showcase the ball-throwing 'bots that each team has spent six weeks assembling in novel ways from nearly identical boxes of parts. At stake -- besides glory -- is $9 million in scholarships.
Kamen would dearly love to speak at every one of those 43 regional games, because he can't afford to squander any opportunity to reach any one of those 42,000 fertile minds. But even Dean Kamen can't be multiple places at once, so he's decided to clone himself through the magic of video. And that's why Kamen and his FIRST Robotics Competition co-founder, Woodie Flowers, are standing here peering into a teleprompter, trying, take after painful take, to perfect their message.
"You can bail out a bank, but you can't bail out a generation," Kamen recites for the tenth time in the past hour, and then his reedy voice trails off. "You can't bail out a generation . . . you can't bail out a generation," he mutters to himself, the wheels turning. This is supposed to be a pep talk — the barn burner the coach delivers to hype up the players before they storm the field, Kamen and Flowers taking turns exhorting these junior roboticists to new heights. But somehow the message keeps twisting away from simple inspiration toward something a bit more complicated.
"You can bail out the banks by printing money, but you can't bail out a generation of dumb people by printing diplomas. ...Although I personally think printing more money is about as dumb as printing diplomas." As Kamen (who, for what it's worth, never earned a college diploma) wanders further and further off-script, Flowers tries to reel him back: "After I say, 'The world needs more and more people like you, dedicated to solving problems, problems that really matter,' then, Dean, you need to go right into 'But we have to get started,' " says Flowers, fully aware that trying to direct Kamen is futile. "We've been at it for 18 years," corrects Kamen. "We can't say 'get started.' "
Finally, hundreds of edits later, Kamen seems to feel that he's gotten it right. "There is a lot at stake in the world today," he intones. "We need you to be able to tackle energy challenges, advance our abilities in medicine, and develop entire new industries. Innovation is absolutely an essential part of the solution. Even before the current financial crisis, we were in a deep competitive hole. Too many people were making money from money, or money from flipping houses and hamburgers. Too few were using hard-earned science and engineering skills to devise real solutions. We need more of you to make your investment in learning and thinking — to be innovators. But we have to hurry. World leaders may be able to bail out the banks by printing money, but you can't bail out a generation by printing diplomas. It takes hard work, but it's worth it."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.