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Kids-in-tech nonprofit founder Dean Kamen urges House to expand STEM options

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Jim Burger

Each spring, hundreds of tech-minded high school students, parents, and volunteers flood downtown St. Louis for a nationally-recognized robotics competition. But Dean Kamen, the pioneering founder of the event, is worried that inner-city and rural schools are significantly underrepresented among the competitors.

After teaming with Thompson Coburn Lobbying & Policy, all that may change. The organization has sparked a Congressional hearing, recruited several federal lawmakers as allies, and built budding support for a new source of funding that could connect thousands of under-served schools with a program that cultivates critical STEM skills in kids of all ages. Lobbying & Policy members Jim Burger and Ken Salomon are working closely with FIRST on its legislative efforts.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by renowned inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen. The nonprofit hosts robotics competitions around the country for grades K-12. Supported by a corporate sponsor and a mentor, each team can participate in local, regional, and national competitions. By emphasizing mentoring and “gracious professionalism,” FIRST has measurably improved the likelihood that children will attend college and pursue STEM careers.

At a Jan. 9 hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Research and Technology, Kamen urged lawmakers to “‘pay it forward’ for future U.S. innovators.”

“Somewhere out there are kids who can potentially cure cancer, eliminate infectious diseases, or build an engine that does not pollute,” Kamen said. “They may not know it yet, but they are the future, and you can help inspire them to pursue those paths and provide them with the skills to seize those opportunities.”

Four high school students and FIRST competitors also testified and described how the robotics program had positively impacted their lives and educational futures. One student, who is legally blind, told the Committee: “Before robotics, I didn’t want to go to college at all, and just wanted to work somewhere where I wouldn’t see people. Because of the confidence that robotics gave me, I’m now looking to go to college to become a teacher at a school for blind students. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.”

Other witnesses invited to testify on the issue included Hadi Partovi, Co-founder and CEO of; Dr. Kemi Jona, Director, Office of STEM Education Partnerships, Research Professor, Learning Sciences and Computer Sciences, Northwestern University; and Dr. Phillip Cornwell, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.