Generation Z

The age of the inventors

Adam's Weekly Blog

Generation Z

Generation Z

Judy Garland once musically invited us to ‘Meet Me In St Louis’....
Judy Garland once musically invited us to ‘Meet Me In St Louis’. The MGM film of that name, told the story of the Smith family in the run up to the 1904 World Fair. As you might expect, the film concentrates on Judy rather than the fair, but that fair was important.

The waffle style ice cream cone was said to have been invented there and it was also there that foods such as peanut butter and candy floss are first said to have met a mass audience. But it wasn’t just about food. The Fair was used to showcase the world’s latest technology and culture.

70 odd years after Judy invited us – I actually went. OK I was late – but the City still hosts an event to celebrate and encourage the best in technology, particularly amongst the young.

The event is called FIRST and it’s the creation of Dean Kamen - inventor of the Segway - that battery powered two wheeled platform on which you stand and scoot around. He’s also invented a new kind of wheel chair which walks upstairs, a water purification system for the developing world and an improbable sounding innovation called The Controllable Launcher – a machine designed to shoot SWAT team members and rescue workers safely to the roofs of buildings.

But back to his technology fair. Each year 75,000 students from around the world take part. The City bursts with teams of tech savvy kids. By the way, Judy may have sung St Louis – the locals call it St Louis.

I was taken to the St. Louis sports centre. It’s there that student teams gather to pitch their robots against each other in a game of basketball, played on a court designed to look like a mediaeval castle.

It’s tempting to think of this as a Geek Fest – but it feels more like a Cup Final or a rock concert with Dean Kamen as its star. Walking with him through the hall – we’re immediately surrounded by students. I’m elbowed aside as they try to touch the shoulder of the man who is making high school tech teams and computer clubs look cool.

There is a sense of fun and festivity here but it would be a mistake to think that’s what it’s about. Off camera Dean tells me his frustration that whilst the US media cover the event – it’s usually a fun piece at the end of the news. But this is really serious, he says. It’s about making kids want to be scientists as much as they do sports stars. It’s about making science jobs look exciting. It’s about helping nurture careers that will create new industries and new solutions to the world’s problems. The media don’t get, he says.

Well some very important people do get it. Dean introduces me to a quiet woman standing near the crowds. She’s Megan Smith from the Executive Office of the President of the United States and is the US Government’s Chief Technology Officer. She’s come to see what the next generation of scientists look like and she’s not alone.

The Admissions Deans from America’s most prestigious colleges come to tempt students with $25 million worth of scholarships. Students here can find their school robot project lands them with a free university education and life chances they could not previously imagine. This isn’t just any robot basketball game – this game changes lives.

And it’s not just the universities who are here to find talent.

Look into the crowd and there’s the occasional flash of blue uniform and braid. I bump into one of them. It belongs to Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson who is leading a team of talent spotters from the US Airforce Academy.

She’s here to get first dibs on the best of the new generation of scientists.

The Airforce Academy now has a commercial partnership to develop unmanned aerial vehicles which are designed by the Academies’ students. Victories, she knows are not just fought on the battle fields – they are built by technology designed by the brightest and it’s the brightest that the Airforce is trying to identify amongst the robot games being played out here in a sports centre in St. Louis.

Whilst the Airforce searched for the best brains of the future – I was busy demonstrating how bad some old brains can be.

Recording a piece to camera whilst riding on a Segway – I fell flat on my back. There was lots of great video we got that day but you can tell immediately by the look in a producer’s eye when they have a bit of footage they think will finish off a report nicely – and you can tell it even when you’re on the floor lying under a heavy Segway.
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