Dean Kamen Explores Invention

His personal list of inventions includes everything from an insulin pump to the Segway Transporter. He started the FIRST Robotics engineering challenges for students. Now, inventor Dean Kamen also has his own television show, aimed at spreading the excitement of invention.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

He's one of the modern icons in engineering and invention. His list of inventions include an insulin pump, a wheelchair that can go upstairs, water purification systems, and the Segway transporter. In the field of education, his first robotics challenges are used around the world to engage students in science and engineering. And now he has a new TV show. He's the co-host of "Dean of Invention," premiering today on Discovery Network's "Planet Green." Of course we're talking about Dean Kamen. He joins us today from DEKA Research and Development in Manchester, New Hampshire. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. DEAN KAMEN (Co-host, "Dean of Invention"): It's great to be back. How are you, Ira?

FLATOW: How are you?

Mr. KAMEN: Terrific.

FLATOW: Are you excited about your new TV show?

Mr. KAMEN: I really am. I think we're if we're successful in putting a human face on scientists and engineers and inventors, we're hoping that, you know, the generation of kids that now seem to be fixated on having all their role models come from the world of sports or entertainment might see that there are other options out there.

FLATOW: Well, you were one of the few lucky people to get invited to the science fair at the White House. Tell us what that was about.

Mr. KAMEN: That was great. And in fact, President Obama said something literally that I've been saying for years. He stood up at the podium and said, you know, in this White House they including himself the presidents are always inviting winners of sporting events, the Super Bowl, the World Series, to the White House. Wouldn't it be appropriate that we make a tradition out of inviting the greats among - particularly kids - in achieving in science and engineering and inventing to the White House to get the same kind of recognition, so that all kids everywhere will see how exciting and relevant and accessible science and technology and inventing are?

Because I think as you know very well, there are way more exciting careers out there for people that have developed the muscle hanging between their ears than for all the sports and the entertainers combined.

FLATOW: And is that what you're going to show on your TV show that debuts tonight?

Mr. KAMEN: Well, the "Dean of Invention" really is a couple of dozen field trips that we took literally around the world around the country and internationally to go find people that were doing cutting edge engineering, science, medicine, inventing, that are about to show the world new solutions to major problems. You know, let's do eye surgery by putting nanobots or microbots into your eye to do something a surgeon's big fingers could never do. Or put nanobots into your blood to deliver chemotherapy to cancer cells without hurting the rest of your body. So it's a whole bunch of field trips.

But to me, success will be that we've shown all these things in a way that makes the viewer realize these are real people doing exciting things that they're proud of, just like, you know, LeBron James is proud of what he does. And the hope to me is that by putting a human face on the world of innovation, the viewers - again, particularly kids and among them particularly women - will start to realize how many exciting opportunities there are out there for people that develop their minds.

FLATOW: It's easy it's interesting that you bring up were talking about girls and women, because they seem to really have discovered science and math and invention these days.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, I think that's one of the great hopes that this country has. You know, we've only got three or four percent of the world's population and the rest of the world is starting to become appropriately very competitive in math and science and engineering. So we need every kid in this country to try out for the team. If we want to have a world-class competitive workforce for the future, we need everybody participating.

FLATOW: Let's talk about what you're working on. Do you have any projects that we might be seeing soon? Can you give us a little peak or...

Mr. KAMEN: Well, as you as I heard your introduction, we are still working more, more intensely than ever on ways to make clean water available to billions of people around the world that don't have it. We're working on a small machine that can make a thousand liters of clean water a day out of just about anything with water in it. And we're hoping to start some more trials early next year.

We're also working on ways to make small distributed electric generation systems to put around the world, and we also will be starting trials early next year. And then, of course, there's my day job in which I am building medical equipment with various partners to be used here in the developed world. And of course my passion is still first our robotics competition, which has its kickoff this year, January 8th. And you know, we expect to have more than 19,000 schools involved with teams this year from 56 countries. So we're expecting by - by the time March Madness starts, nearly 50 major cities around the country and around the world will be doing their weekend competitions. And then our finals this year, we're moving to the center of the country, to the Edward Jones Arena, right under the big arch in St. Louis.

FLATOW: No kidding.

Mr. KAMEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Jess(ph) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi, Jess.

JESS (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JESS: I would like to mention from the topic earlier where it was spoken about science students getting to meet the president. I didn't get to meet the president when he was the president, but he was still a senator. There's a program called National Youth Science Camp and I was both a delegate at it, and then later a staff member. And we have a Senate luncheon every year. And it is unfortunate that so few of the senators actually attend. Everyone is invited, but we only usually get a couple attending. But there is recognition. And as we were leaving one year, Obama, in 2006 - though he was still senator came and noticed us all and spoke to us, and mentioned the importance of science.

FLATOW: Yeah. He has made that a theme of his campaign and also of his now that he's in the White House, I remember him promising to say that he would be bringing, you know, kids and scientists to the White House, just like basketball stars, and he's done that.

JESS: That's great.

FLATOW: Yeah.

JESS: I just wish that we'd have more senators to attend that luncheon.

FLATOW: Well, Dean, how do we get that to happen?

Mr. KAMEN: Well, it's funny that you mentioned that point, because as I said, we had we'll have 50 regionals this coming year. We were all the way up to 46 regionals last year. And one of them, we put literally in the convention center in downtown Washington, specifically. Because we hoped now that we have teams competing from every state, we figured, certainly, all the senators and Congress people would want to show up and root on their teams, and see what's going on, especially in something as important as this.

And it's sad to say to you that my senator, Jeanne Shaheen, from New Hampshire showed up and the Senate majority leader of the United States, Harry Reid, showed up, but somehow, although we invited 100 senators and, well over the 400 congressmen, nobody else showed up.

So I'm hoping, next year, we will have much better turnout, because I think once these elected officials see what these kids are capable of, once you get them energized and passionate, and once they've connected with the great mentors that we have working with every one of them, and once these, again, political leaders see the importance of, and the power of science and technology in the lives of these kids, I think FIRST ought to become a major sport in every school in country. And it ought to get the same kind of recognition by our elected officials...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. KAMEN: ...as if we were giving out free tickets to the Super Bowl, I think they'd all find time to get there.

FLATOW: Well, do you not suspect that in this political environment, there's an anti-intellectual bent, where the people don't want to think that science is a good thing to know about?

Mr. KAMEN: You know, I hope I'm not that cynical. I think it's not that. I think they many of them think it's just too difficult and abstruse a subject to really understand. They don't want to be embarrassed maybe by what they don't know. I think it's even simpler than that in some cases. They believe that that we invited them to see some kind of a boring, dull science fair where they'd have to read little charts and posters with, you know, words either from Latin roots in medicine or...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAMEN: ...mathematical figures and terms that they didn't really understand. And when we tell them, no, no. It's nothing like that. It's a sporting event. It's so exciting. You bring the cheerleaders and the school bands and the fans, and you have a great time. Except instead of learning how to bounce the ball, these kids are learning how to think and solve difficult problems, and work on complex issues with big teams.

But until you go to the event, I think they dismiss it as, it must be a science fair. I won't get much out of it. I won't be able to comprehend it. But every senator, every congressman, every governor that attends these events in their hometowns comes away, I think, a major FIRST supporter, which is why we wanted to get them all to the event last year. But I'm hoping we'll get them all there next year.

FLATOW: Let me get last question in from Leslie(ph) in Portland. Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE (Caller): Hi. I'm just calling because I want to amend what Dean would tell students who may not have the natural science minds that he has but are very interested in science. What would you tell them to get excited about pursuing a career in science?

Mr. KAMEN: I would tell them to disregard the myth that they don't have a natural talent. The irony in me is, if you don't have the natural genetics to become seven feet tall, you may not make it in basketball no matter how hard you try. If you don't have the genetics to weigh two or 300 pounds, you might not make it in football. But the one muscle we all have that just unbounded capacity to grow and expand and do new things is your mind.

And I think I would say to all kids who think they don't have, quote, "a natural ability for math and science," I would tell those kids, work hard. Pick up the book. Read it whether it starts with arithmetic and then geometry and algebra and trigonometry.

If they're willing to work anywhere near as hard at developing their mind as they do with other things that they're so encouraged to do, these kids will be able to achieve whatever they want in a world that's depending more and more on science and technology, in which more and more the jobs that are exciting depend on science and technology. And I would dispel the issue, particularly, again, about girls...

FLATOW: All right. Yeah.

Mr. KAMEN: ...that they see in our culture all the time, that somehow they don't have a natural ability for math and science. It's just not so.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck on your TV show.

Mr. KAMEN: Thank you very much. And I hope we'll see you on the Mall at the science festival tomorrow in Washington. And, yeah, I hope the world likes "Dean of Invention." And I hope it turns on a lot of people to the excitement of science and technology. The first two episodes start tonight at 10:00.

FLATOW: There you go. Dean Kamen, founder and president of DEKA Research and Development. And now, the host of "Dean of Invention" TV series on Planet Green.

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