09/08/2011 02:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Our Challenge: Motivating the Next 'Joe Montanas' in Science and Engineering

As palpable as the crisp air of autumn, football season in America has arrived.

No question about it: get ready for five months of gridiron ecstasy -- a plethora of afternoons and evenings filled with amazing laser-like passes from quarterback to fleeting receiver, the brute straight-ahead surging of running backs, and the nail-in-the-coffin finality of last-second field goals.

As we marvel at the athletic skill and magic of such NFL pros as Payton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Chris Johnson, as well as college stars like LaMichael James of Oregon State and Andrew Luck of Stanford, let us not forget the part that science and engineering plays on and off the field to make these stellar performances happen -- and what this says about the prevalence of technology in our lives, and where we must head as a nation in science education if we are to motivate the equivalent of the next generation of "Joe Montanas" or "Serena Williamses" in the global game of innovation.

Of all sports, football perhaps represents the most sweeping impact that science and engineering has on athletics -- ranging from the safer and better-engineered equipment that players wear to the athletes' mode of physical training, diet/nutrition, play calling and the way their injuries are treated.

This in turn reflects a bigger picture -- just how integral technology is in enhancing virtually every aspect of our daily lives -- from the medicines we take and the vehicles we drive to the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

But herein lies a dilemma: While it is unlikely that we will ever face a shortage of talented athletes graduating from our schools, we are indeed facing a critical reduction of students entering STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which threatens to have a detrimental effect on the innovation pipeline in all areas of technology.

Add to the mix that many universities and colleges tend to place higher priority in time and dollars on their athletic programs (because these programs are frequently viewed as immediate money generators for the schools) as opposed to their school's science outreach programs -- initiatives which are often deemed "expendable" and are frequently among the first to be eliminated or seriously curtailed, especially in these budget-cutting times.

As founder and organizer of the USA Science & Engineering Festival (the country's only annual national celebration of technology and especially designed to motivate the next generation of innovators), I take issue with this line of thinking.

In reality, science and engineering outreach, although admittedly more long-term in its goals and benefits, carries the vital mission of helping to motivate and train America's STEM leaders of tomorrow. STEM disciplines are sorely needed to revive America's global leadership position in innovation, which is now dwindling, and to create well-paying, high-tech jobs for the future. The stakes are high, and in these pressing times, this represents an agenda that sports can never compete with -- and a dividend that knows no dollar amount.

Which is why, as I contact universities around the country asking for their support and participation in the upcoming 2nd USA Science & Engineering Festival, I take every chance I can to urge them to place as much emphasis on supporting science outreach initiatives to K-12 students (in an effort to motivate the next Montana or Williams in science and engineering) as they do in supporting their athletic programs.

Participating in a major nationwide and international event like the festival, and its massive finale Expo celebration (taking place in Washington, DC on April 27-29), provides some great and inherent opportunities for universities, including:

-- Allowing their faculty members in STEM fields to showcase their cutting-edge research and innovations by engaging in a public outreach setting and serving as role models and mentors to young learners. (The National Science Foundation requires that its research grant recipients participate in outreach.)

-- Engaging their undergraduate and graduate students and their local alumni in exciting hands-on interaction with underserved K-12 students interested in science.

-- Allowing their undergrads to network with some the world's leading scientists and professional organizations.

-- Permitting those universities with viable athletics programs to attend with their sports scientists, technology experts and athletes to wow kids with demonstrations of how science and engineering is contributing to sports performance, safety and quality.

-- Engaging and exciting the public about the major science and engineering research underway at their institutions. (If the public is unaware or misinformed about such work, they will be less likely to be interested in funding it, so you could look at it as a form of promoting job security!)

The public benefits as well. Our inaugural national festival last year (formally endorsed by both Houses of Congress and by President Obama) attracted more than half a million K-12 students, teachers and other participants and visitors, in addition to 750 organizations, colleges/universities, government agencies, businesses and news agencies in technology.

Join us next April when the festival includes an expanded network of satellite events nationwide, more than 100 world class scientists and engineers, as well as leading serial biotech entrepreneurs/innovators such as Elon Musk, Richard Garriott and Anousheh Ansari, and lunch (open to students and the public) with renowned Nobel Laureates in science, and more!

The festival concludes with an exciting weekend Expo in DC featuring a myriad of hands-on interactive exhibits, stage shows and demonstrations from around the world -- all celebrating the power of science and engineering.

For more information, visit

As sure as football rules in autumn, motivating and educating the next generation of innovators is a competition we cannot afford to lose. Please join me in accepting the challenge.