i.am FIRST and Popularizing Science

This evening my kids and I watched i.am FIRST — Science is Rock and Roll. It was a special telecast of Dean Kamen’s annual FIRST robotics competition for kids, augmented with the contributions of rapper will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who also works with Intel as a “director of creative innovation” to help identify their technologies with a youthful pop audience. Embedded throughout the broadcast was a whole host of pop music acts, including Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.

First of all, I want to be clear that I give full, mad props to Dean Kamen and to will.i.am. Dean’s commitment to science and science education is well established in history, and though I hadn’t heard of will.i.am before the show, I did some Googling and became satisfied that his commitment is real too. He appears to be genuinely interested in science and in helping kids to become excited about it, for the betterment of mankind. That these two guys were able to get a primetime special on TV is a great thing for everyone.

Obviously, here comes the big “but”. I’ve invested a lot of time and money in trying, without a lot of success so far, to make science and skepticism commercial; trying to find the intersection between what consumers will want and what benefits their brains. The i.am FIRST show has exactly the right motivation and the right idea, and I am doing the cheerleading macarena on tabletop in support of Dean and will.i.am (for whatever value that brings).

I would have made the show differently. i.am FIRST tried to address the problem of commercial appeal by shoehorning Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and a dozen other pop stars into something they’ve got nothing to do with. I’m sure there are some kids somewhere who watched the show because of those acts. But did they really come away as enriched and excited about science as they could have?

Really, the robotics competition was a Trojan Horse cargo for a Justin Bieber & Miley Cyrus broadcast. Anyone who tuned in for the music probably fast forwarded through the robots.

The students who got 30-second profiles were generally those wearing crazy costumes, colored wigs, or busting out some kind of robot rap. The producers probably hoped that goofy behavior would appeal to kids, and trick them into watching a robot competition.

I think all of those strategies are wrong.

First, it’s worthy of repetition that Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, et. al. have nothing to do with science or robots. However, there are plenty of people out there who do have something to do with science, who are equally entertaining for the kids, and who bring something relevant to the table (such as credibility). Adam Savage and the whole Mythbusters crew, Phil Plait from Bad Universe, Brian Cox from Wonders of the Universe, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil Degrasse Tyson, etc. etc. This is not a short list. These are people who (a) are at least as entertaining for kids as Justin Bieber, and (b) are actually believable when they encourage kids to be excited about science.

It’s insulting to a young audience to show the team with the crazy wig vs. the team with the goofy costume, and then show which robot wins. Instead, have each team give us a 15-second description of one specific strategy or advantage that their robot has, and then show the contest. Wig vs. costume does not show a kid what’s cool about science, but algorithm vs. algorithm does.

Instead of having a student spokesman speak directly to the student audience about what’s interesting about their particular robot contestant, i.am FIRST gave a brief Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus performance. Kids don’t identify with pop stars doing their act, but they do identify with other kids, the same age, showing-and-telling what they just built.

In summary, if I were to remake this show, I’d replace all the irrelevant pop stars with equally fun spokesmen who are actually in the field, drop all goofy wigs and costumes on the cutting room floor, and show why nerds will conquer the world: because they can think the problems through. i.am FIRST was devoid of all thought.

I conclude by expressing that I’m glad to have will.i.am as an ally to all of us who promote science education. I look forward to whatever his next project will be.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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5 Responses to i.am FIRST and Popularizing Science

  1. Atticus says:

    Careful, As if your album cover wasnt enough, you’re gonna upset a certain Skepchick again siding with Will.I.Am. It wasnt that long ago they accused him of being a sexist pig whose demeaning to women… Unfortunately I cant find the blog she wrote but here’s her Twitter response


    • As I said, I hadn’t heard of him before and know nothing about him other than what I researched for this post. As has been famously said: “Sexism can be found anywhere you want to find it.”

      I prefer to focus on the positive contributions that people make. I do not hold anyone to an irrational standard of perfection. Rebecca and will.i.am have both made positive contributions to the world; if they prefer to quibble with each other about things they dislike, that is of course their prerogative.

  2. Atticus says:

    You’re a good man. A very dignfied response. : )
    As to the article’s point, here in UK while I was growing up, we had a science show hosted by a chap called Johnny Ball. A geeky fellow but a sure fascinating one too. He was the science teacher everyone wanted. The main series was called ‘Think Again’ which also had mamy spin-offs. It was aimed at kids but not in a patronising way. Pretty sure you can Youtube it. Check it out as it seems similar to how you described you’d do it.

  3. Tombolian says:

    Love you Brian… but (just kidding, no but)

    I think the problem with today’s youth, scratch that, today’s public, is that they don’t want to learn, they want to be entertained. You didn’t mention if this show was on PBS, or if it was a major or cable network. I’m afraid it came down to dollars and cents when they were thinking of their programming (unless it was on PBS, in which case, I retract my statement)

  4. spaceguy87 says:

    Interesting take. I did not watch the program so I can’t comment personally but your assessment seems fair.

    I just wanted to point out one place I think you were not fair. I participated in FIRST robotics in high school all 4 years. The goofy costumes and wigs are genuine, not something contrived by the producers of the tv program, which you imply. They should not “drop all goofy wigs and costumes” because that is part of how the kids enjoy themselves at these competitions. Instead they can refocus the coverage of the program, of course. But they shouldn’t take away the kids’ fun!

    That’s all!
    – Ben H.
    Houston, TX

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