America needs more students entering science, mathematics fields

In Geneva, Switzerland, a 27-kilometer long circular particle accelerator, buried 100-meters underground, will attempt to launch proton-sized lead ions to just under the speed of light. Experiments planned at the Large Hadron Collider — and the prospects of what they might reveal to humankind — are both exhilarating and unprecedented.

The LHC could generate microscopic black holes; it might prove theories about the existence of ‘dark matter;’ in fact, it could entirely revolutionize our understanding of physics.

Since CERN (the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), where the LHC is located, was established in 1954, Europe has rigorously increased its role as a nexus for science and technology. In 2005, the European Space Agency’s Huygens space probe, in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Cassini satellite, provided the technical knowledge to land a probe on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The Huygens probe, built almost entirely with non-American technology, was the first spacecraft ever to touch ground on a planet in our outer Solar System.

While NASA and the ESA enjoy an excellent working relationship, the ESA is increasingly attracting more qualified science and technology graduates from European and Asian countries. There’s certainly no prejudice involved (the LHC has a handful of American researchers engaged in their project); it’s simply because there seems to be a declining number of qualified American science and technology graduates. Even here in the U.S., NASA has reported that close to 80 percent of their newly hired research fellows and technologists were educated in foreign institutions.

Earlier this year, a study commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that the U.S. only generates around 225,000 university graduates annually in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Microsoft has announced that they are finding it increasingly difficult to attract domestically qualified engineers and statistics suggest the trend is not reversing. This July, the National Research Council (a Congressionally-chartered group that provides U.S. policy advice), released a report calling for more legislative support to promote degrees in fields like biology and chemistry.

While such national reports — along with any significant legislation, scholarships, grant programs or other measures that result from these initiatives — proclaim a need to increase graduates in these fields, ‘real’ solutions can only be implemented successfully at the ‘grassroots’ level.

During the 2007/08 school year, only 39.7 percent of Washington’s grade 10 students met state standards in science. Comparatively, less than half (49.3 percent) met math standards. While science percentages reflected a small (slow) increase over 2006/07 (science 36.4 percent/math 50.4 percent) and 2005/06 (science 35 percent/math 51 percent), math scores reflect a gradual decline.

And even as these results are admittedly sub-standard, it certainly did not help that, in 2007, the Washington State legislature voted to delay implementing more rigorous high-school graduation standards, which required passing grades in both math and science in order to earn a degree, until 2013. This year, the Governor removed the math graduation requirement altogether by 2014.

That’s unfortunate, since such benchmarks are often very successful at encouraging students and parents to take a more committed, engaged, approach to academic achievement and to challenge themselves much more rigorously. By retreating on such crucial benchmarks, we’re certainly not expediting the development of graduates who might someday work at CERN, the ESA, or even NASA.

A year back, Congress passed the ‘America Competes Act’ to in order to strengthen the U.S.’s domestic focus on the math and sciences and to improve the nation’s competitiveness in these fields. While the legislation has ambitious, politically-mandated goals, the reality is that student engagement and academic achievement improves when parents play an active role in that process: the tendency toward ambition is forged at home; in the absence of parental involvement, support and encouragement, students are less likely to pursue these more challenging, albeit rewarding, courses of study.

This next decade alone, I have no doubt that advances in science will be extraordinary: astrobiologists will announce the discovery of extra-terrestrial, microbial life on Mars (or one of Saturn’s moons), the LHC will expose the structure of ‘dark matter,’ cures for AIDS and some types of cancer will be uncovered, earth-like extra-solar planets will be discovered within nearby star systems and biologists will announce the first successful creation of a ‘synthetic,’ laboratory-created life form. The question remains; “How many American scientists and researchers will be engaged and involved as part of these discoveries?”

If current trends continue, the answer will certainly be, “Not many.”

But a solution does lie within reach.

Here in the United States, our students have many inspirational opportunities. Four years ago, when our government announced ambitious plans to return to the moon by 2020, many science enthusiasts wished fondly that we could be back in high school, pursuing a career track that would allow us to become part of that specific endeavor. Today’s high school students have exactly that opportunity. What it will take, however, is student engagement and a willingness to accept more rigorous academic challenges that have the potential to reap high rewards.

Most importantly, however, is that it will take commitment. Commitment from more parents to redefine life priorities and become more engaged in their children’s futures; to make time and talk about the prospects of higher educational aspirations, and the chance to pursue a career that could potentially have incredible implications for all of humankind.

In the next decade, the STEM fields will become even more crucial to our growth and development as a species. In order to meet the global demand for skilled scientists to fulfill vital research roles both here and abroad, Washington parents need to become stronger advocates for the math and sciences – both at home, and in the State legislature.

Our students, our national competitiveness — and our future — depends upon it.

Michael Kundu is a board member in the Marysville School District, an amateur astronomer, and an appointed member of the National School Board Associations Federal Relations Network.

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