After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States became focused, as a nation, on the improvement of science education. Sputnik was a wakeup call that shattered our belief that we held a technological edge over the rest of the world. The result? The nation demanded funding and research that would once again place the United States in a position of scientific superiority. We encouraged our children to pursue careers in science, supported the enhancement of science teachers, and spoke with our votes to increase education budgets. Our president even proclaimed that we would put a man on the Moon within the decade. Science education and science teachers were important.
Unfortunately, our nation has begun to take science and the accomplishments of scientists in the United States for granted. The telephone, airplane, automobile, electric power, atomic fuel, vaccines, transplants, medicines—all of the discoveries of the past century—were expected outcomes of the U.S. education and economic systems. But, we cannot rely on the past century for what will become the legacy of this century. As Rising Above the Gathering Storm suggests, we are not certain as to who will be the next generation of innovators. It’s even less clear as to how these innovators will be encouraged and supported without extreme intervention. We’ll need scientists, engineers, and doctors who will make discoveries and improve on our current technologies to find new energy sources, discover medical breakthroughs, and contribute to our quality of life.
Some have called what is occurring a “quiet crisis.” Today the challenge is economic. We can’t count on another Sputnik event to create a boisterous crisis that will rally the nation. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to mobilize a nation without a threat that shakes their world. But, the next Sputnik is clearly here, as evidenced in the Science and Engineering Indicators:
- U.S. high school students rank near the bottom in international assessments of science and math;
- U.S. college graduates attain relatively fewer degrees in natural science and engineering;
- Since the early 1990s, U.S. output of scientific articles has been flat;
- Of the top 10 corporations receiving U.S. patents in 2003, 3 were American, 5 were Japanese, 1 was South Korean, and 1 was Dutch;
- Since 1990, foreign inventors have been granted nearly half of all U.S. patents;
- Between 2000 and 2003, the U.S. ranked fifth among OECD countries in terms of reported R&D/GDP ratios, while Israel (not an OECD country) led the world in R&D/GDP.
It’s now up to those of us who are aware of the crisis to do something about it.
Quality science education is key. What can you do? First, I suggest that you read some of the studies cited with this article (see box, previous page). Fully understand what is occurring within our country, schools, and classrooms. Then, identify the best and brightest in your classes and encourage them to pursue careers in science, technology, and teaching. Encourage students through example. Don’t hesitate to show your passion and enthusiasm for what you teach. Find another teacher in your building and become “critical friends” to create a support system for each other—good teachers need other good teachers. If you don’t have all of the resources you need to do your very best, seek funding and support. Go to your supervisor, school board, PTO, and parents armed with the information concerning our quiet crisis. Do all of this knowing how important you are. You are a science teacher. You are essential to America’s future.
Linda Froschauer, President, 2006–2007, National Science Teachers Association
Linda Froschauer (firstname.lastname@example.org), President of NSTA, is an eighth-grade science teacher and the science department chair for Weston Public Schools in Weston, Connecticut.
Results of recent studies on science, technology, engineering, and math
Tapping America’s Potential. 2005. Business Roundtable.
According to this report, 60% of future jobs will require training that only 20% of today’s workers possess. “We must focus, as quickly as possible, on…areas that affect the choices made by students now in the pipeline. If we take our scientific and technological supremacy for granted, we risk losing it. Our goal is to double the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates by 2015.”
Science and Engineering Indicators. 2006. National Science Board.
“If the U.S. is to maintain its economic leadership and compete in the new global economy, the Nation must prepare today’s K–12 students better to be tomorrow’s productive workers and citizens. We simply cannot wait for our students to turn 18 years old to begin producing the intellectual capital necessary to ensure this future workforce … The Board is convinced that it is absolutely essential for the future of our nation that we address the weaknesses in our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education system, especially at the pre-college level.”
Rising Above the Gathering Storm. 2005. National Academies of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine.
This report emphasizes the need for world-class science and engineering
—not simply as an end in itself but as a principal means of creating new jobs for our citizenry as a whole in this global marketplace.
National Innovation Initiative Report. 2004. Council on Competitiveness.
“For the future, the nation will need a workforce equipped with more than literacy in reading, math, and science. We need a whole generation with the capacities for creative thinking and for thriving in a collaborative culture. We need a class of workers who see problems as opportunities and understand that solutions are built from a range of ideas and resources.”
The World Is Flat. 2005. Thomas Friedman. Farrar, Straus, and
“Consider the annual worldwide Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. About 40 countries participate…the Intel Fair attracted about sixty-five thousand American kids. In China…as many as six million kids [are] competing.”
Transforming America’s Scientific and Technological Infrastructure: Recommendations for Urgent Action. 2006. Project Kaleidoscope.
This document is a comprehensive summation of the others listed here. It should be required reading for all science educators.