October 31, 2002

Segway Scooter Inventor Presents Mission to C.U.

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Riding into the lecture hall on his newest invention, the Segway Human Transporter (H.T.), inventor Dean Kamen spoke yesterday to a full auditorium of mostly engineers in Hollister Hall.

Kamen’s speech was a plea for support and participation by universities such as Cornell for his program, entitled, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).”

“Here was a person who used engineering skills to address social problems of the world,” said Krishna S. Athreya, director of Minority and Women’s Programs in Engineering, as she introduced Kamen to the audience.

As Kamen scooted back and forth across the platform on the invention that has given him much acclaim, he gave a brief history of his career. Starting in high school by creating medical equipment, Kamen’s interest in engineering quickly burgeoned into his own business of making medical equipment. Soon Kamen took on the project of trying to improve the wheelchair to benefit those who had lost the ability to walk.

“When someone loses the ability to walk, transportation is only one thing that they have lost. A person is not a sack of potatoes. Transportation is trivial, but how do you get back the ability to stand? Humans love to move around. It’s a fundamental thing of human life,” Kamen said.

By studying and understanding human balance, Kamen has begun working on a machine that will help disabled people in wheelchairs to move more easily. This machine should be out on the market as early as next year. From his study of balance, the idea for the Segway scooter was also born.

Kamen explained that there was a discrepancy among different federal agencies on how the scooter should be classified.

However, this debate is coming to a close, as 32 states, including California, have said that the scooter should be regulated as an empowered pedestrian as opposed to a motor vehicle. This regulation gives the scooter the opportunity to be used on the sidewalks of cities.

After Kamen spoke about the scooter, he turned his speech towards the FIRST program. The idea behind FIRST was to “create an institution whose purpose isn’t education, but inspiration. That was FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Our culture is obsessed with sports and entertainment. This culture now tells students that ‘life is short, play hard,’ in all of their ads, instead of ‘life is short, work hard,'” Kamen said.

FIRST gets middle and high school kids involved with engineering. It also gets companies to sponsor teams from schools across the country to compete in regional science tournaments.

The championship event is held annually at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center and hosts 20,000 team members and fans. Last year alone, the program held 17 regionals across the country, in cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago and Houston. This year it has grown to 23 regional events, with 800 companies agreeing to sponsor teams across the country.

Kamen spoke of how difficult it was to get universities involved in sponsoring these events because of the bureaucracy he has encountered when asking for permission.

He explained that often the university president or dean is more interested in raising money than investing time and effort into his program.

“Unfortunately, I am very aware that universities, like other institutions, need to bend and flex and sometimes need to stand up for the right thing to do instead of the easy thing to do. Education is not a short term thing. Universities need to stop looking at short term things,” Kamen said.

Students who attended the lecture said that they greatly enjoyed it.

“I thought it was a really interesting lecture. [Kamen] is a really smart guy. He sees an inherent problem in our current educational system wherein students are more encouraged to dream about playing for a national team than the more realistic goal of becoming an engineer or scientist,” Mike Shafer ’04 said.

Amy Orlansky ’06 supported Kamen’s suggestion that Cornell take part in the FIRST program.

“I think it would be a great thing to do because it would provide high schoolers with a chance to see Cornell and to learn more about engineering and science,” she said.

Kamen’s lecture was part of the Culture and Diversity Lecture Series, which is sponsored by Minority and Women’s Programs in Engineering.

Archived article by Erica Temel