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Want U.S. to keep tech edge? Teach kids science

By Dean Kamen, Special to CNN
  • America's lead in science, technology and engineering is slipping, says Dean Kamen
  • This jeopardizes the nation's economic competitiveness and wealth generation, he says
  • Kamen's program, FIRST®, encourages students to pursue science and technology careers
  • Kamen: 15% of America's high schools have a FIRST® program, and every school needs one
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • NASA
  • Dean Kamen

Editor's note: Dean Kamen is president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation and founder of FIRST®. "Don't Fail Me: Education in America" Video examines the crisis in our public education system and why America's financial future is at risk if our students can't excel in math and science. Sunday, May 15, 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- When I was in high school, my older brother, Bart, was fast on his way to becoming a brilliant physician and pharmacologist. He began to specialize in juvenile oncology, and found himself in need of a device that could administer minute doses of medicine to his infant patients over an extended period of time. Eager to help, I went down into my parents' basement and started building.

Eventually, that homemade device morphed into my first infusion pump, which has gone on to be used to treat many illnesses, including diabetes.

My early foray into the beguiling, challenging and rewarding world of invention was unique, but the passions that inspired it are anything but. The world is full of kids who, like me, are born tinkerers, who want nothing more than to gather their birthday presents and begin disassembling them to figure out how they work. Anyone with a desire to build and grow has the capacity to become a scientist or engineer; but educational statistics in America present a very different story.

Students in this country now rank 23rd in science and 31st in math out of 65 developed nations. Fewer and fewer scholars are going to universities to major in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. And consider this: The average age of a NASA engineer at the time of the first moon landing was 26, meaning that those same budding technologists were 18 years old when President Kennedy made his famous call for lunar exploration. Today, the average age of a NASA engineer is nearly 50.

As our technological prestige falls, it will become more and more difficult for the United States to sustain its economic competitiveness and wealth generation.

For more than 200 years, this country has been the birthplace of major technological triumphs that have revolutionized societies and cultures, from the wonders of Thomas Edison's laboratory to the Internet. However, these phenomenal successes will become distant memories unless America can re-ignite kids' passions for science and inventing.

In 1989, I founded FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program that encourages students to pursue careers in science and technology through robotics competitions. At first I was met with a lot of raised eyebrows: How many kids would choose to put down the baseball bat and hockey stick and pick up a socket wrench and soldering iron?

Two decades later, I am proud to say that hundreds of thousands of students across this country have done precisely that, and our alumni now fill the ranks of America's best corporations or have gone on to found successful businesses of their own.

FIRST® veterans are three times as likely as their peers to study engineering in college. They are also more likely to secure internships, to pursue STEM careers and, after being inspired not only by the wonders of technology but also by the commitment of our incredible mentors and volunteers, to volunteer in their own communities.

Despite 20 years of great success and phenomenal growth, FIRST® is still not available to every student in every school in this country. Of the 25,000 high schools in America, only about 15% have a FIRST® program. While this in itself is a substantial achievement, much work must be done to make this country's best-kept secret available to everyone. Fortunately, FIRST® and STEM are starting at long last to receive the attention of the media and popular culture.

At our championship last month in St. Louis, The Black Eyed Peas joined Willow Smith and others for a concert to celebrate our organization and its mission. As has said, FIRST® is already cool -- what he can do is "make it loud."

The importance of STEM must be heard loud and clear in every classroom across this nation. Only at that point will every child in America have the opportunity that I had -- to dream of new ideas and new creations, and have the knowledge and support to make them a reality.

The 21st century will present no shortage of great challenges for scientists and engineers. Which nation will take the lead in the search for new sources of energy? Who will lead the team that cures cancer? Where will the room-temperature superconductor be perfected, an innovation that will fundamentally change our lives? The future of America -- its economic competitiveness, technological development, national security and military strength -- depends on the next generation of STEM leaders.

The inspiration that I felt in my parents' basement as I tinkered with wires and gears is now being felt in thousands of classrooms and workshops throughout the United States and around the world. Each student who explores the wonder and excitement of STEM can expect not only a successful career, but also a prosperous America and a better world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Kamen.