Dean Kamen: U.S. Must Focus on STEM to Regain Innovative Spirit

We must encourage students to excel in the STEM fields if we are to remain competitive.

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Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of FIRST, autographs a custom-built robot designed by students.

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Dean Kamen is an inventor and entrepreneur.

Our economy is struggling. Our politicians are campaigning about job creation and growth, but their solutions aren't addressing the fundamental problem facing the United States: our nation's declining rate of innovation, hastened by a cultural apathy to the vital STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Our teachers are working overtime to inspire their classes, but out of 34 countries our students rank 17th in science and 25th in math—the two fields with the highest potential for successful careers and new businesses.

Somehow, our culture has plenty of time and money to celebrate movie stars and athletes. The world watched with great interest in February as actors and actresses graced the red carpet clutching their Oscars. And this spring, we saw plenty of media attention and cheering for the NCAA's Final Four Men's Basketball Championship.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

In a free society, you get what you celebrate. If we continue to focus our adulation on the results of our national wealth, the "leisure time" for sports and entertainment, rather than the brilliant inventors and innovators who produced it, we will continue to fall behind. It would be easy to blame teachers or politicians for our predicament, but pointing fingers won't help—swift action will.

What we need in this country is a return to a culture that celebrates new discoveries and brainpower, a culture that embraces the challenges and rewards of innovation. Imagine a nation of curious inventors and tinkerers finding a cure for cancer, or creating energy solutions for the 21st century. Science and technology can be every bit as exciting as scoring the winning game point; you just have to see the face of a kid with a "Eureka!" moment to know that's true.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

This country was founded on the spirit of entrepreneurship. From hard-working inventors like Thomas Edison to innovators like Henry Ford, our history is filled with ambitious men and women who never became comfortable and complacent with their wealth and success, but instead drove forward and created new ideas, new creations, and new industries.

I founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) after witnessing firsthand our culture's indifference to the STEM disciplines. By challenging and inspiring students, FIRST is changing the culture by creating a generation of future leaders who will use their passion for discovery to fuel America's economic engine. Here are three ideas we can use to inspire today's youth with entrepreneurial aspirations and dreams of innovation:

Get comfortable with failure. Failure is an inevitable hurdle along the path to innovation. As an inventor, I know how many discarded prototypes are needed before a finished product can be realized. I urge adults to help kids find opportunities for creative thinking and learn how to tinker with failure until they unleash a successful new idea. For kids, parents, and teachers, it's as easy as checking out the new challenges and competitions at www.wouldntitbecoolif.com and www.usfirst.org.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Change the metrics for success. Let's stop judging kids in the classroom strictly by test scores. In the real world, the answers to tough questions aren't in the back of a textbook. You've got to engage groups of kids by proposing complex tasks within an exciting, collaborative framework. For example, students in this year's competition for FIRST LEGO League, one of four robotics programs within FIRST, had to research and solve food contamination issues, from exposure to insects and creatures and unsterile processing and transportation to unsanitary preparation and storage. The results so far are astounding. One team of FIRST LEGO League students created O-Box 3000—a lunchbox capable of generating ozone to kill bacteria on the food or in the container. The invention costs less than $40.