Inspiring Tomorrow’s Technical Leaders Today

Last week on 60 Minutes, a popular TV news magazine program, they featured the new DEKA Arm, a innovative new robotic arm for victims of amputation. They showed the behind-the-scenes engineering and creativity required to overcome extremely difficult design obstacles, including the amputee’s control, comfort and precision of movement (think of the precise movement and control needed to pick up a grape and put it in your mouth, as demonstrated in the video). It is a moving story, and one that once again illustrates the incredible impact engineers and scientists have on society.

So what really inspires someone to become an engineer or scientist? In my experience, those I’ve had the honor of working with and for through the years were inspired by an adult or a real hands-on project that ignited their interest. What if there was a program that offered both for kids – inspiring professional engineers and scientists working with them and hands-on, real-world projects like the DEKA arm to solve.

Well, there is such a program, and it was coincidentally invented by the same person who showed off his team’s engineering talent – Dean Kamen. When Kamen and his team at DEKA Research and Development are not inventing the next robotic arm that brings movement to victims of horrific war battles and tragic life accidents, he is working to inspire the next generation through is non-profit, FIRST. One program, FIRST LEGO League, geared toward kids ages 9 to 14 is part of a pipeline of programs for kids ages 6 to 18 that combines both mentorship by professional engineers and scientists with a hands-on approach to solving real-world problems.

So let’s hear from some kids what they like about FLL:

Hows that for some deep thoughts on engineering and science? What’s so great about FLL is just that – kids can be kids, have fun, and do engineering. They love playing with LEGOs, of course, all the while studying topics like transportation (ie, this year’s theme – they are studying jetpack travel as their focus) and designing and programming robots to solve various missions.

I am a proud robotics FLL mentor, going on my 5th year working with Austin-area students to help them solve their FLL challenges. And we are so fortunate to have professional engineers and scientists like Siddharth from National Instruments and Paul from IBM, who were inspired to follow their education and career paths from the hands-on, real-world experiences they had as kids.

Here is what Paul and Siddharth think about spending their time with kids (slightly cut off at the top after the YouTube upload – sorry about that!):

Thanks to Paul and Siddharth, IBM and National Instruments, and all the other engineers and scientists and their employers who allow these talented professionals to spend time with our kids.

You can check out FLL online to learn more about this inredible program and find out how you can become a mentor or start a team.

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