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Barbara Hannah Grufferman

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Will America Ever Have Another 'Sputnik Moment'?

Posted: 03/19/2012 9:02 am

How did we let this happen?

Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics in New York, was recently interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article in which he claimed the U.S. is losing its global edge, much like Great Britain lost its during War World II. Why? "Because," he said, "we're not producing enough scientists."

He noted that for many years college graduates have been lured to the high stakes and paychecks of investment banking. But even though he has "nothing against investment banking" he made a sharp observation about how that field simply "massages money" whereas in physics you "create money" by creating inventions. If you're an investment banker, he went on to to say, "you don't create anything new. You simply massage other people's money and take a cut."

Prof. Kaku is not alone in his feelings about Wall Street. An article in the New York Times claims that "Wall Street, once a magnet for America's best and brightest, is facing a recruiting problem." There are many contributing factors, of course, starting with the Occupy Wall Street movement, waves of layoffs, cuts in pay, and the increasing desire by young people to choose careers that have a social purpose.

This could be a golden opportunity for America to rethink its approach to how we teach science, math and critical thinking, to make it more accessible and creative. "Humans," Prof. Kaku said, "are natural-born scientists. When we're born, we want to know why the stars shine. We want to know why the sun rises." Eventually, though, we end up in high school, which Prof. Kaku calls the "danger years." "And we lose them by the millions--literally by the millions. Why? It's a combination of bad teachers and no inspiration."

Prof. Kaku referred back to the 1950s when the "Russians were beating us left and right. It was our patriotic duty to become a physicist." Our job now, he believes, is to help young Americans to find their 'Sputnik moment' and inspire them to move toward the creation of ideas by harnessing science, technology, engineering and physics.

One reader of the New York Times article commented:

Wall Street sucks up too much talent. All these bright kids need to prepare themselves for useful work in the STEM fields or teaching. It is an utter waste to have math/science majors writing algorithms so the "banksters" can skim even more cream from the top.

A reader of the Wall Street Journal interview with Prof. Kaku made a strong case for returning to the basics of math and science (as taught in the 50s and 60s) as a path to the next 'Sputnik Moment':

I deeply admire Prof. Kaku. However, if he wants to understand why America is not producing engineers and scientists, he ought to examine how our public schools are trying to teach math and science today. Public education has to realize that what they've done to "improve" math education at the elementary levels has failed, and go back to teaching math they way it was taught when I went to school. Kids need to master basic arithmetic, fractions, and learn the multiplication tables first, then you can introduce critical thinking in the later years and high school, along with algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

How can we show the next generation of Americans that they, too, can have their own 'Sputnik Moment'?

It's imperative that parents, teachers, government and business leaders forge public-private partnerships to help young girls and boys find their competitive streak, patriotism, personal pride, and desire to think creatively. According to a study conducted by the Intel Corp. only 52% of 12th graders are at or above the basic level of achievement in the sciences, and only 57 percent of eighth graders are at a basic level of achievement. This must change.

An abstract from another study states:

As the global economic crisis continues, sustaining the United States' position as a leader in research and development is a top concern of policy makers. Looking to increase the number of students pursuing degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), calls for improved mathematics and science education abound.

American companies, recognizing how critical the situation is, are putting millions of dollars behind programs geared to educating students and teachers on the importance of science. I met with Shelly Esque, Vice President, Global Director of Intel's Corporate Affairs Group, and President of the Intel Foundation, during the Women in the World 2012 Summit. Shelly, who was part of a panel during the conference focusing on educating girls around the world, oversees many science education initiatives, including the Intel Science Talent Search, which is the nation's most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors.

Since 1942, first in partnership with Westinghouse and since 1998 with Intel, SSP has provided a national stage for the country's best and brightest young scientists to present original research to nationally recognized professional scientists. The Intel STS encourages talented U.S. high school seniors to pursue independent research in science, math, engineering, and medicine. Seven alumni of the program have been selected as Nobel Laureates.

We need more programs like this.

Intel, and many other American companies, have made long term commitments to educational programs focusing on science and technology because they recognize that our country has been experiencing a brain drain for many years. And, a key to reversing that trend is to make science appealing and accessible and to show young Americans that pursuing careers in science, technology, physics and math can be just as rewarding -- and cool -- as those in finance, and probably even more so, if we are to take the words of Prof. Kaku to heart.

However, we need to demonstrate to our kids (especially girls) that it's cool to be smart by producing shows that are cultural touch points. It's encouraging that one of the most popular programs on television is The Big Bang Theory, which features physicists in all their brilliant glory. Even the rock star of scientists -- Stephen Hawking -- recently signed on for a cameo. One of the main female characters, though, is a stereotypical pretty, blonde, sexy, not-too-bright young woman with whom, of course, all the brilliant physicists are in love. Most of the other women on the show who are "brainy" aren't nearly as attractive.

Have we become so immune that we no longer see? Or is it that we don't care? These harmful portrayals of nerdy male geniuses and dumb, pretty women must be stopped, and replaced with positive role models who will encourage our kids to find their inner scientists...with pride.

Are we doing enough to help our children have their own 'Sputnik Moment'?

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