Dean Kamen Q&A: American culture needs a geek overhaul

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(Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief, Jim Meigs (left) and inventor Dean Kamen.)

Andrew Moseman says: Dean Kamen is famous for inventing the AutoSyringe, the portable dialysis machine, the iBOT self-balancing wheelchair, and, of course, the Segway human transporter. But he is most passionate when talking about his nonprofit organization, FIRST, which tries to get kids excited about science and technology by having them build 120-pound robots to slug it out on a rough-and-tumble field of play. "We're not competing with science fairs, we're competing with Britney Spears and Shaquille O'Neal" for the attention of teenagers, Kamen said. The FIRST game changes every year—in 2008, teams raced 40-in. balls around a track. Kamen spoke with Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief Jim Meigs and an audience of journalists and FIRST competitors at the magazine's headquarters, in New York City's Hearst Tower. Kamen's core message: American culture needs a geek overhaul.

What do you think is the most important science and technology issue to be addressed by the next president? What's the biggest issue he should take on?

Is it energy? Genomics? Is it bird flu? Is it the polar caps—are they really melting? Is it terrorism? You pick the crisis du jour: The answer to all these issues is going to be an educated, competent global society. This country ought to lead the world, for lots of reasons. And we ought to help the rest of the world get educated, because if they are educated, their impact on the environment is actually way less. If they are educated, they'll have better ideas than killing each other or killing you and me.

The next president should recognize the power of technology. Technology is how we create wealth, how we cure diseases, how we'll build an environment that's sustainable and also gives people the capacity to pull more out of this world and still leave it better than when they found it. You know, people always talk about rights in this country—I wish we had a bill of responsibilities. So I think the president has to stop thinking of the crisis du jour and say, "In this race between education and catastrophe, we need education to win." The next president better make sure that all kids are part of the solution, not part of the problem. And with 50 percent of the kids in the 20 largest school districts in the country not graduating high school, they're part of the problem. This is unsustainable. It has to change.

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Dean Kamen on education