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Planet Green's 'Dean of Invention' shows how science may solve some of life's biggest problems

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Dean Kamen was game to do a weekly TV show about science.

Under two conditions, that is:

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First, he wanted to keep the focus squarely on science — especially its thrilling possibilities for youngsters who dive in.

Second, Kamen, a world-renowned inventor (maybe you've heard of his Segway human transporter), didn't feel like reinventing himself as a TV personality.

"I can be me. YOU can make it interesting," he told his new partners at the Planet Green network.

The upshot is the new Planet Green series "Dean of Invention," which turns Kamen loose to explore cutting-edge-and-beyond technologies.

He is paired with correspondent Joanne Colan, who has appeared on MTV, Fine Living Network, BBC and is a past host of the website "Rocketboom."

The eight-part "Dean of Invention" premieres with back-to-back half-hours Friday at 10 p.m. EDT.

Its first episode, "Meet the Microbots," probes the exciting realm of nanotechnology: medical instruments the size of fleas or even smaller; infinitesimal robots that might someday be deployed for surgery in the eye or brain, or even in the bloodstream to target cancerous cells and neutralize them.

Then "Building the Bionic Body" investigates the growing need for human limb replacement as it spotlights scientists making advancements in prosthetic devices that in some ways are even better than the God-given originals. (This show brings Kamen into familiar territory: His hundreds of patents include the robotic prosthetic "Luke Arm," which he named for Luke Skywalker.)

"I'm not an actor, I can't just read lines and I have a day job," said the 59-year-old Kamen, attempting to explain his involvement in this new TV venture. "But I'm always willing — in fact, I'm shamelessly groveling and begging — to find support for FIRST. I've got to get the word out!"

So there it is: Kamen's ulterior motive. With "Dean of Invention," he not only wants to celebrate science as a vital ingredient of everyday life, but also, more specifically, to promote the mission of the organization he calls FIRST: hooking kids on science as a red-hot career choice.

"If kids could become passionate about their capability to use tools of science and technology to make a better world, and to realize that's more accessible to them as a career than, say, pro sports, they'd be all over it," Kamen declares.

With that in mind, 20 years ago he founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit initiative that teams professionals with young people to competitively solve engineering design problems. During the 2008-09 school year, more than 137,000 children (and thousands of engineers) in 42 countries participated, Kamen says.

"Dean of Invention" neatly fits into his FIRST-promoting agenda: to rescue science from its "billions-and-billions-of-stars" brand of awesomeness, and bring it down to earth.

"For this show, I said we have to make the science relevant to everybody — adults and kids," says Kamen. "You take a huge, diverse set of problems that are important to people — energy, transportation, the environment, disease. Technology properly developed and applied can wipe any of those problems out. I think that's a good story. But it's very rarely told."

That's the story behind "Dean of Invention," which began a couple of years ago as Kamen huddled with its producers and with Planet Green boss Laura Michalchyshyn, who first dreamed up the series.

Kamen says he compiled a list of more than 100 practical, relatable areas of scientific research.

Another list identified individuals or labs at work in each of those areas.

Finally, a list of interesting people emerged, with their specialties thematically grouped for each episode.

"I wanted to meet with people in areas where I've done enough work that I wouldn't feel like an idiot," says Kamen with high-rev, wry intensity. "On the other hand, I wanted to learn something new and different."

"We didn't want scientists to just be hanging out in the lab, talking about science," adds Michalchyshyn.

"No!" Kamen agrees. "Kids, especially, think science is very boring and that scientists are all frizzy-haired, middle-aged white males who don't have any friends. That's not what kids want to grow up to be."

As "Dean of Invention" leapfrogs across the globe to see what real-life scientists and engineers are up to, "I hope kids will decide, 'These people are cool, and I could do that. That looks like fun!'"

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Discovery Green is a division of Discovery Communications, LLC.

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Online:

http://planetgreen.com

Kamen's organization to promote science among kids: http://www.usfirst.org

Kamen's research company: http://www.dekaresearch.com

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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