More than 20 years after Dean Kamen founded the nonprofit Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), he says there's still a long way to go to fill the STEM jobs gap in the United States, and the federal government can have a large role in the solution.
Kamen's organization holds annual robotics and technology programs and competitions for nearly 13,000 schools in the United States. But according to testimony Kamen gave Thursday before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's Subcommittee on Research and Technology, that's just 10 percent of American schools. Many schools, he said, struggle to fund not just FIRST programs, but any STEM programs.
"I always believed that I would run out of the mentors and corporate sponsors long before we satisfied the needs in all the schools," Kamen told U.S. News. "But what we ran out of was the ability for the schools, especially the ones that need us most, to be able to participate in this, even though corporate America is doing all the heavy lifting."
Kamen says underserved schools often don't have the funds to give stipends to teachers who want to supervise after-school STEM programs, or don't have the facilities to host them.
More than 3,500 corporate sponsors support FIRST, and more than 130,000 volunteers mentor students in schools throughout the country. But Kamen says supporting schools' STEM efforts is an area where the government and corporations "ought to be working hand-in-hand."
"Let the government figure out how to make sure the schools do support their teachers, and do support the program, and give them access to leverage all of this incredible commitment from industry," Kamen says.
In testimony before the House committee, Kamen proposed that the government redirect a portion of application fees from H-1B employment visas to help schools financially. Each year, American companies file thousands of petitions for these visas to bring in temporary workers from other countries to fill skilled positions, including those in science and engineering.
"Why don't we kill two birds with one stone," Kamen says. "Let's make sure the government uses that fee to go out and support these schools so we can create some more of our homegrown scientists and engineers, so you can see an end to the tunnel of these fees because you can have homegrown engineers down the road."
Aside from supporting schools financially, Kamen says congressmen should also act as cheerleaders, helping to inspire students to pursue a career in STEM fields.
"Every congressman in this country, every senator in this country, has at least one or two FIRST teams in their district ... and they ought to be there cheering and rooting for them," Kamen says. "Kids want to do things they think get respect, that people are excited about. I think if these congressmen, these senators ... can become fans for FIRST, they can encourage kids to double down, to work extra hard, to be excellent at something that's going to matter to their future."
And according to Kamen, getting students excited about programs like FIRST works. A survey of FIRST alumni, Kamen says, found that nearly 90 percent are either majoring in a STEM field in college or working in a STEM profession.
Kamen says when he founded FIRST, celebrities and sports stars "were celebrated and revered, and scientists and engineers were not."
Kamen says he still believes that STEM fields can be seen as exciting and competitive -- like professional sports are -- and that will help engage more students.
"We are in a heated competition for the hearts and minds of kids, fighting for their attention in a world that too often points them in the wrong direction," Kamen said in his testimony. "That is a loss for all of us because somewhere out there are kids who can potentially cure cancer, eliminate infectious diseases or build an engine that does not pollute."