Many Baby Boomers remember the day when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite, into space. Scott Wilson, Washington Post columnist, recalls Sputnik as a wake-up call reminding Americans that there was “a big brash alternative out there that was a lot smarter than anyone thought.”
President Eisenhower rallied the nation to respond to Sputnik by training more scientists. Eventually, the U.S. won “the space race,” landing men on the moon. Today, the U.S. faces rising competition from the emerging economies of Asia. Like Ike, President Obama is now trying to inspire the country to rise and meet the challenge of a new “Sputnik moment.”
Last week, I delivered an address to the Iowa State Conference on Increasing Enrollments, Diversity, and Success in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Some of the statistics I shared were not hopeful:
• There have been continuing sharp declines in the numbers of U.S. college students studying math, physical science and engineering.
• The average math scores of U.S. students in 2006 were lower than scores in 18 of 24 comparison nations.
• One-third to one-half of college students leave STEM majors, with the most dramatic dropout rates for women, first-generation, and multicultural students — even those who are highly prepared and motivated.
• 51 percent of U.S. patents are now granted to non-U.S. companies.
• Fewer new drugs are being approved in the U.S.
• China is now the world’s No. 1 technology exporter.
A 2010 report from the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded that shortages in STEM are not only an economic problem; they are a threat to U.S. national security.
Obama noted in a 2009 speech, “We’ve seen worrying statistics like this for years. Yet, time and again, we’ve let partisan, petty bickering stand in the way of progress. Time and again, as a nation, we’ve let our children down.” Nonetheless, the proposed 2012 national budget includes cuts of $260 million from the National Institute of Health, $53 million from the National Science Foundation, and $138 million from career and technical education programs.
So what can parents and educators do to get more young people involved in STEM until politicians get on board?
Researchers suggest that the potential pool of scientists first emerges in elementary school. They also identify the middle school years as especially important for encouraging girls and students of color to enter the math and science pipeline. It is here that young people shape their ideas about who they are, what they might become, and what they like or dislike.
Parents and educators should encourage students to recognize the many career opportunities available in STEM — from the health professions to computer science, to engineering and agriculture.
Emily Richer, now making highly regarded wines for Virage, says she always liked science and math as a young girl. However, she adds, “Nobody ever sat me down to tell me what I could do with science. Now, I rely on those classes that discussed chemical reactions, chromatography and pH.”
Rather than infecting kids with the idea that math is “hard,” or that only a special few can do math, educators and parents must support students and help them understand they can achieve any goal, be anything they can imagine, but that success requires commitment, dedication AND hard work.
A Wall Street Journal article on Amy Chua’s controversial book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” cited research showing that almost 70 percent of Western mothers said either “stressing academic success is not good for children,” or “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, nearly 0 percent of Chinese mothers felt the same way. While Chua’s book focused on Chinese moms, the same traits are found in parents from many immigrant backgrounds, whose children are challenged and supported to meet high standards.
Parents and educators need to teach students that failure is an important part of learning and success. Remind them how many times children “fail” before learning to walk, or say their ABCs, without giving up. Thomas Edison reportedly failed 10,000 times before finally inventing the light bulb.
As the nation celebrates the death of Osama bin Laden, itself a technological feat, President Obama said, “We are reminded that as a nation there’s nothing we can’t do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans.” The president echoes Ike in saying, “The future is ours to win.”
(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrown associates.com.)