Thursday, October 04, 2007

SPUTNIK REDUX: What's Changed for K-12?

by Karen Symms Gallagher

10.03.07 - Los Angeles - Fifty years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. It is not an exaggeration to say that this event shook the world, and we still feel its reverberations today.

Sputnik was a dramatic wake-up call to the United States, communicating in stark terms that the U.S. was not entitled to the position of world leader in science and technology that it had enjoyed since the Industrial Revolution, and that a free market economy alone would not be enough to maintain a competitive edge in the Space Age. Sputnik sparked the creation of NASA and an unprecedented boom of U.S. government investment in research and, perhaps even more important, math and science education and high-tech workforce development. These investments assured several decades of world leadership in science and technology.

And yet, if you close your eyes and listen, Oct. 4, 2007, is not so different from the day Sputnik was launched. Once again, U.S. policy circles are buzzing worriedly about our nation's place in the world, concerned over a growing challenge to our present dominance from a huge communist competitor--in this case, China, coupled with fellow burgeoning Asian economic power India.

Once again, our nation's educational system has been called into question, as international assessments indicate that our K-12 students lag far behind their peers from dozens of other nations in science and mathematics.

Furthermore, the impending retirement of baby-boom scientists and engineers trained during the post-Sputnik era has led to concerns over potential high-tech workforce shortages. Only 4.7% of undergraduate degrees awarded in the U.S. are in the field of engineering, compared to a staggering 38.6% of those awarded in China. Clearly, our national commitment to engineering and other high-tech fields has waned. As these jobs are playing a larger and larger part in the world economy, our timing is particularly bad.

This is not demagoguery intended to inspire fear of China, India or other emerging competitors. After all, those nations are doing the right thing for their populations by investing aggressively in education and workforce development and moving their economies beyond lower-wage manufacturing jobs.

Furthermore, their success does not spell doom for the U.S. economy as long as we react accordingly: with public investments that allow our students and workers to compete with their international counterparts. By building a solid bedrock of science and math education in grades K-12, we can assure a problem-solving, technically adroit workforce that will keep the U.S. in a position of global leadership.

A recent report from the National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education (STEM) serves as a strong call to action in this regard, which all relevant federal, state and local policymakers should read. The report urges robust federal investment in such education programs at the National Science Foundation and the establishment of a nonfederal National Council on STEM Education to facilitate collaboration between federal, state and local initiatives--a crucial consideration in the American system of K-12 education, for which control resides at the local district level. If we are to match our international competitors' singular focus on preparing students to succeed in STEM disciplines, we will need a mechanism like this Council to lead the way.

Thankfully, we are already seeing meaningful steps in this direction. The America Competes Act, signed into law by the president in August of this year, makes important steps by expanding U.S. investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education programs, particularly those aimed at preparing more and better teachers of these critical disciplines. Additionally, the budgets of key science agencies like NSF and the Department of Energy Office of Science have already begun to expand thanks to the combined efforts of President Bush and Congress.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. was quite lucky, in a way, to receive a wake-up call as clear and unequivocal as Sputnik. Responding decisively to the challenge was not easy, but it was fairly straightforward. Today, we don't have the benefit of such a dramatic event, which makes the task harder.

It will take vision and sacrifice for the public and our leaders at the federal, state and local levels to respond to the challenge laid out in the National Science Board Commission report in a sustained and meaningful way.

It will be important to keep the salient lesson of Sputnik in our minds--the U.S. can maintain its leadership in science and technology if it has the will to do so.

Karen Symms Gallagher is dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education and served as a member of the National Science Board's Commission on 21st Century Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

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