Segway Inventor’s FIRST Organization Aims to Fuel Future STEM Leaders

November 13, 2018

By Jeff Barrett(opens in new tab), CEO at Status Creative(opens in new tab)

In short:

  • The most passionate and successful entrepreneurs often spend time investing in the next generation of creators. 

  • For example, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, created a nonprofit called FIRST to get kids interested in STEM subjects. 

  • The nonprofit’s work offers a solid example for companies looking to build relationships in their communities.

As I travel the country covering entrepreneurship(opens in new tab), I’ve noticed that the most passionate creators are equally passionate about making sure others follow in their footsteps. 

Take Dean Kamen(opens in new tab), inventor of the Segway. In 1989, Kamen started a nonprofit to give future generations the same passion he has for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM(opens in new tab)). 

The FIRST step

Called FIRST(opens in new tab) (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), Kamen’s organization aims to motivate kids to pursue educations and jobs in STEM through classroom activities. Upon joining a FIRST team at a participating school or youth organization, student teams receive materials to build robots with help from mentors and coaches. Each year, thousands of teams present their finished work--both standard robots and Lego ones(opens in new tab)--at local, national and international FIRST competitions.

Students from around the world compete at the 2018 FIRST Championship(opens in new tab). (credit: FIRST/Adriana Groisman)

Students can participate in FIRST from kindergarten through high school. Robotics teaches lessons about goal-setting and competition, but the real goal is to create a life-long interest in science and technology, as well as skills needed for employment, Kamen said.  

“We know if we can get kids as passionate about technology, science and engineering as they are about sports and video games, we can inspire them to change the world,” he said.

Nearly three decades post-launch, FIRST reaches more than 53,000 students in 95 countries. Seventy-five percent(opens in new tab) of FIRST alumni are in a STEM field as either a student or professional. Thirty-three percent(opens in new tab) of female FIRST alumni take an engineering course, compared to the national average of 8 percent, and they are three times more likely to major in a STEM subject in college.

Talent development, talent retention and a talent pipeline


The earliest FIRST classes, K-4, focus on simply developing an interest in robotics. Competition phases kick in from grades 7-12. This tiered approach has produced famous alumni including Casper co-founder Neil Parikh, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers, Dr. Priscilla Chan (founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) and lead SpaceX engineer Aisha Ayoub. 

The FIRST Lego League(opens in new tab) is a precursor to high-school robotics competitions. (credit: FIRST/Argenis Apolinario)

FIRST is different from other STEM education organizations in that it partners directly with large companies to create mentorship programs. The organization recruits volunteer mentors from the community--typically from large employers in the area--to teach kids the building blocks of robotics in a hands-on way. Employers like Ford and others view this not only as good CSR(opens in new tab) but also a facet of talent attraction and retention. Through FIRST, engineers passionate about teaching future generations have an outlet to do so with support of their organization. 

FIRST is also viewed as a local talent pipeline that can develop promising students and keep them in the area after graduation, as they’ve built a relationship with FIRST over their entire academic career.

FIRST’s next steps

Kamen is still involved with FIRST’s vision, mostly brainstorming ways to expand its reach.

In the U.S., 17.5 percent of students participate in FIRST projects and competitions, said FIRST President Don Bossi. He wants to reach even more, especially those who aren’t naturally interested in science or math. 

“Some kids are turned off from STEM the way it is presented in schools. Reaching those kids can be game-changing,” he said, adding that he’s aiming for more gender, racial and socioeconomic diversity in the field. 

That’s how you can tell that a nonprofit is run by entrepreneurs. After existing goals are met, they create new ones and ask more questions in a continuous cycle.

A team of students celebrates after the 2018 FIRST Championship. (credit: FIRST/Argenis Apolinario) 

The case for growing your community’s youth

FIRST’s program and results make a compelling case for community outreach. When your company invests in local youth ...

  • You develop a workforce to draw on later.

Corporations fund FIRST’s programs and competitions. From GM to FedEx to Twitch, the businesses are eager to get involved with students, building a workforce pipeline in a given region that nurtures future industry leaders.

  • Your current workforce gets happier.

Working with a nonprofit can help with a company’s employee retention as employee mentors become more involved in their communities.

  • You may find more partners and customers to work with.

The more opportunities you create to partner with brands, potential partners and customers, the more likely you are to succeed. FIRST’s model is rife with these opportunities: The schools, youth groups and corporations they partner with all represent vast networks of potential FIRST supporters or participants.

  • And you just might make your city the next name-brand “innovation hub.”

The next innovation hubs to emerge will have nothing to do with geography and everything to do with talent(opens in new tab). If you want to see your city become “the next Silicon Valley,” you’ll need to develop its talent base early.

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