Adam Savage and Dean Kamen Talk STEM

The two spoke about ways to attract students to science, technology, engineering, and math at South by Southwest

12 March 2014

Photo: Jessica Klima

Some of the biggest names in science and technology took to the stage at South by Southwest, an interactive conference held in Austin, Texas, where thousands gathered from 7 to 11 March to discuss the role that the latest innovations play in our lives. As part of the IEEE Technology for Humanity Series, Adam Savage and Dean Kamen talked about how to inspire the next generation to take the reigns on building what they called an “intelligent future.”

Savage, cohost of the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, gave a fiery presentation on 10 March about the importance of art, creativity, curiosity, and play when teaching kids about science. And Dean Kamen, an inventor and founder of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology or FIRST—a program aimed to get students inspired about STEM—discussed the innovative ways his organization uses hands-on experiences to engage students.

“Every generation has thought the same thing about science—that everything had already been discovered,” Savage said. He named several young people who thought otherwise, including 15-year-old Jack Andraka who discovered a cheaper, faster, and more accurate way to diagnose pancreatic cancer using carbon nanotubes.

Savage went on to debunk myths that many students tell themselves, including: “I am not a math person” or “Science is above me.” He discussed how many creative fields, such as the arts, require the same type of thinking as science does. A filmmaker, for example, has to understand the rhythm and timing to be able to create a powerful narrative. “That is absolutely a mathematical algorithm,” he said. “The idea that science and art are opposites is a great misnomer… It’s not STEM, it’s STEAM. I add the A for art.”

In MythBusters, Savage oftentimes tests humorous problems, such as whether people get wetter when they walk or run in the rain. Or who can drive better? A person who is inebriated or blind. The show is about answering questions that spark curiosity and laughter, using the scientific method to help answer them. He encourages his viewers to question absolutely everything.

“We live in a world where we have far more sports teams in schools than we do science fairs. I’m hoping by the time I am done promoting science, the situation will be reversed,” Savage said. He pointed out there is a big difference between kids reading about science, and getting their hands dirty by working on do-it-yourself projects.

“Until you get your hands on it, you don’t fully understand it,” he says. He hopes more schools find opportunities for students to engage with science beyond books.


One person helping to make that happen is Kamen, who showcased the work he is doing with FIRST. During his talk, he discussed his mission of making STEM subjects exciting to students.

“All kids are born scientists. Watch them. They are all curious and learn at a fast pace,” he said. “Kids go to school with question marks and leave with periods. We can’t let them feel that all the answers are in the back of the book or that all the big questions have been answered.”

Over the years FIRST has brought together some 250 000 kids to engage in competitions such as building robots (sometimes out of Legos). These events can feel like a sporting match. The 22-year-old program incorporates a sense of competition, awards, hands-on experiences, and even cheerleaders to root on the teams. In just one competition, some 7000 students participated in teams of 15 to 25. Many IEEE members volunteer to mentor the students and help them build their bots.

The FIRST website calls it the “varsity sport for the mind.” Kamen said these types of experiences are why kids enjoy sports. FIRST attempts to bring the same excitement to science, as well.  “They never know what is going to happen and who is going to win.”

For those with STEM careers, what ideas do you have on how to help mentor the next generation? Share your ideas in the comments field below.

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