05/26/2011 03:10 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011

In Our New Sputnik Moment, the Solutions are Down on the Ground

In Our New Sputnik Moment, the Solutions are Down on the Ground

This is our new Sputnik moment. But different. This time the threat has crept up on us in insidious fashion--not with the dramatic blaze of a humiliating and ominous satellite etching its permanent mark on history in our night sky. And the roaring economy of the late '50s that made an instant, enormous commitment to increasing funding for science and technology education, well, that's history, too.

The United States is behind in math and science. We need new ideas to fix this problem. Fortunately, these are things we do well in the United States: New. And ideas. And fixing. We have done it before--to put a man on the moon, to lead the biotechnology revolution, and to transform the way the world connects and communicates. But this time, we'll have to do it without the impetus of a Soviet villain, or a declared War on Cancer, or an Internet stock bubble.

The future is about innovation, and if today's students are going to compete in the world, they'll have to know what they're doing in the fields of study known as the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. States and cities are having to make big cuts in education--fewer STEM teachers and fewer resources--and that's where the solutions will have to come from, too.

Every community has people and organizations that can enhance kids' learning experiences in these subjects, nurture their innate curiosity, and motivate them to succeed. And while many institutions already pitch in to support schools--museums and local colleges being important examples--probably most of the untapped resources are those people and organizations that may not think of themselves (or may not be immediately considered) as potential partners in this critical challenge.

Architectural firms, graphic designers, and construction companies, for example. Urban planners, electrical engineers, environmental waste managers. And bankers, software engineers, even ace video gamers. We need to think broadly. Anyone in a community who makes, invents, or builds things can play a part. Make, INvent, Discover -- why not call these the MIND professions?

And why not find a way to have all the MIND professionals in every community contribute in some way? To introduce students to careers they may never have heard or dreamed of, and show them what they need to learn to get there. From vocational skills to soaring inspiration, the gamut of opportunities is ripe for a jolt of new ideas and community contribution.

There's a moment in the wonderful film "October Sky," based on the childhood of Sputnik-inspired rocket scientist Homer Hickam, when Hickam's model display is stolen from a state science fair. A coal mine worker (and former pilot) in his West Virginia hometown uses the mine's metal shop to replicate the boy's display overnight, and Hickam took first prize. Neighborhood coal miner supports future NASA engineer. Exactly.

Communities will have to figure out a way to make that kind of collaboration happen more systematically and more regularly, and do it in strong partnership with schools.
Hickam also benefited from an especially dedicated science teacher, right there in his little coal town. These teachers are everywhere, but in too-short supply. Certainly, funding to increase the number of exceptional STEM teachers is a critical component for success. But the reality of the 21st-century equation is that even the best, luckiest teachers will have to do more with less.

That's where the rest of us must step in. Our goals in this new century include celestial exploration and achievement, but much, much more--and in realms we hardly yet know.
And everyone from Sesame Street and video game creators to big U.S. corporations are pushing STEM education because it's so critical to our country's security and economic prosperity. For many big companies, their very future depends on ensuring a qualified domestic employee applicant pool that's skilled in the STEM subjects. Google, ExxonMobil Foundation, Alcoa Foundation, and Amgen Foundation, for example, are offering prizes for initiatives that fill in the gaps at our under-funded educational institutions through bold new community partnerships.

For anyone who argues that throwing taxpayer money at education is not the answer, well, here is our moment to prove there really is another way. Because there's not much money to "throw" right now.

Americans have been at the forefront of discovery and invention in the most challenging and thrilling frontiers for a long time. We aren't lacking for innovative ideas or for creative energy in this country. It comes down to doing what it takes to get our own satellite up in the sky. And, as Homer Hickam said, "A rocket won't fly unless somebody lights the fuse."

So, let's light it.

You can help light the fuse in this new Sputnik moment. Enter or nominate a solution in the Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology +
Engineering + Math (STEM) Education
competition. A partnership of Ashoka's Changemakers®, The Carnegie Corporation of New York, and The Opportunity Equation, the competition is offering more than $120,000 in cash and in-kind prizes (funded by a variety of partners) for the best community partnership initiatives to advance STEM learning.