How FIRST Global’s Big Mission Will Inspire Two Billion Students
Graphic of Dean Kamen
Oct 3, 2023
  • FIRST® Global seeks to ignite a passion for science and technology among students
  • Lam’s $10 million donation has helped the organization grow STEM education across the world

Imagine a sport “where coopertition® is just as important as competition.” One where every participant can “go pro” and where the objective of the sport is to nurture cross-cultural communication and cooperation among high school students to help solve critical challenges facing our world.

FIRST Global® is that sport. Its mission is to “inspire leadership and innovation in youth from all nations by empowering them through education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” The very real competition stems from the imagination of prolific inventor Dean Kamen.

  • He has transformed how patients with diabetes receive care with the design of the first portable insulin pump and reinvented personal mobility with the invention of the Segway, among many other inventions.
  • Dean holds more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign patents, was awarded the National Medal of Technology, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
  • But his proudest accomplishments are founding FIRST and FIRST Global.

 I reached out to Dean to discuss barriers to STEM education, emerging technologies, and how FIRST Global is inspiring the next generation of innovators.

Read the blog post announcing Lam’s $10 million donation to FIRST Global

What gap does FIRST Global seek to fill?

In a world facing immense challenges from access to clean water to health inequities to political instability and more, FIRST Global is the shining beacon of hope. We aim to ignite a deep-seated passion for science and technology in the two billion young people globally. This passion is channeled into finding, building and sharing solutions to overcome these big gnarly problems.

The FIRST Global Challenge is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. The students build a network of youth from over 190 nations, present their ideas to corporate and government leaders, and take their newfound skills, knowledge and inspiration to their home countries to promote STEM. They become the role models, mentors and leaders in their communities.

Take the example of Kazakhstan. Our in-country partner attended the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge in 2017 and returned home with a dream to make STEM education accessible to all. He worked alongside Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science to bring over 3,000 robotics classes to schools across the country. Five years later, his organization hosted the largest robotics competition in their nation’s history, which engaged more than 10,000 students.

FIRST Global is about planting a seed, especially in areas where STEM education is hard to access. We are nurturing the growth of these budding innovators.

Why does FIRST Global emphasize collaboration and cooperation over competitiveness?

Those big gnarly problems facing our world today can only be solved by a united effort. Fostering teamwork and interdependence empowers these students to work together, transcending borders and cultures. In this globalized world, it's crucial to teach the next generation that divisiveness won’t get us anywhere. Real success comes when we join forces and combine diverse perspectives and skills to solve complex problems. By emphasizing collaboration, FIRST Global prepares these future leaders to tackle pressing global issues, showing them that together, we can achieve more than any one of us could alone.

Competition is a tool like any other. It sharpens our focus and helps us determine the best solutions from a pool of potential solutions. But, a single-minded focus on competition risks losing sight of the big picture. You can slip into a pattern of zero-sum thinking, but we don’t live in a zero-sum world. As innovators, we must grow the pie for everyone.

When you combine competition and cooperation, you get one of our core values: coopertition®. In every FIRST Global Challenge, there is a set of points that are awarded only when two competing teams accomplish a shared objective. We structure our annual challenge like this because FIRST Global is not about building better robots, it’s about building a better world. Coopertition® produces innovation in a way that competition alone cannot.

What are some challenges or barriers that students face when pursuing STEM education, and how does FIRST Global address these challenges?

When your scope of concern is the entire world, there’s an endless list of challenges students face when pursuing a STEM education. Some of our students lack consistent access to electricity. Some have no running water in their house. Others have been uprooted from their homes by war. There is no single solution to all of these challenges, but by planting seeds in every corner of the world, we can empower communities to develop solutions for their specific challenges.

By convening the world each year, FIRST Global helps students realize they are part of a larger community that shares similar challenges. It helps them to think big. Participation in FIRST Global not only develops our students’ technical skills, but also connects them to networks of support, mentorship, and resources they might otherwise lack. We now have alumni who have returned as mentors, leading their own teams and inspiring the next generation of students. I am confident that if we can give people the skills and inspiration needed to address global challenges, they will find solutions.

This year’s FIRST Global competition theme is “Hydrogen Horizons.” Why focus the competition on issues around climate change? And why this year hydrogen solutions?

We know this generation of students will work hard and learn about STEM if they believe it can be instrumental in solving the problems they are concerned about. Climate change is top of that list. It affects all of us, but its consequences will be most dire for them.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts that global electricity demand will hit 45 trillion KWh by 2050 — almost 20 trillion kWh more than the world produced in 2018. That means we need to make more energy and we need to do it in a way that is globally accessible. Hydrogen has the highest energy content by weight of any fuel and can be stored and transported as a liquid or a gas, meaning it can be more easily distributed on a mass scale. Best of all, “green hydrogen” energy can be produced without adding carbon to the atmosphere.

 “Hydrogen Horizons” helps students learn about the many aspects of energy – how it’s created, how it’s stored, how it’s deployed. Hydrogen energy is a potential yet promising solution that if safely deployed at scale would address a truly global problem.

What does Lam’s donation do for FIRST that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise?

Lam’s generosity has been crucial in establishing FIRST Global as a cornerstone institution for growing STEM education across the world. Your $10 million, multi-year grant has set the benchmark, providing us the long-term support needed to sustain and grow FIRST Global. It has enabled us to provide record financial aid to teams in need allowing them to participate in-person at the FIRST Global Challenge in Singapore. It is also allowing us to conduct a longitudinal study to demonstrate to others the tangible impact of our programs on the development and growth of students in STEM education, helping us support our sustainability.

What role do you see emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, playing in the future of climate technology?

All of these engineering tools will be used by the next generation of innovators. While not specifically designed for climate issues, if properly understood and properly used, they will solve these and more.

Perhaps the most exciting part is what we don’t know yet. You could have never predicted that the steam engine in the 18th century would one day result in air travel. I think the same applies to all kinds of emerging technologies. Not just AI and quantum computing, but also biomedical innovations such as engineered organs or advanced prosthetics.

Do you see yourself in these students? In what ways?

As I look back on my life, whatever I really learned, I learned it through project work. Textbooks are a great resource, but I had to build something to deeply learn the lessons. Similarly, at FIRST Global we are giving students hands-on opportunities by building robots and solving problems in order to gain a deeper understanding of the science and the technology they are applying.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in pursuing careers in STEM (particularly in the semiconductor industry)?

My best advice is to learn the fundamentals of science and math. Learning the specifics of any semiconductor product will be obsolete long before they are out in the field trying to create value. Physics and math never go stale.

Lam Research, our title sponsor, builds the equipment for the semiconductor industry. They will be at the FIRST Global Challenge in Singapore Oct 7-10th. Stop by their booth and ask them questions.

Can you share an anecdote of a student or team that participated in FIRST Global that has inspired you?

I can give you 192 of them! Without exception, when you talk to each and every team about what they had to overcome to get to the event, when you hear about their journeys and learn about how FIRST Global has transformed their lives, I am blown away. Without exception they are all inspirational! This is why we keep doing what we’re doing.

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