11/22/2011 02:05 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

Giving Thanks for Service, Hope for Next Generation

As families nationwide gather this week to give thanks, perhaps no one group of fellow citizens should be thanked more than the men and women serving in our armed forces. Many military families, however, will have an empty chair at their Thanksgiving table -- an empty chair that serves as a reminder of the sacrifices mother, fathers, aunts, and uncles are making every day to protect our freedom. And sadly, this sacrifice in military families is often hardest on the children.

The National Math and Science Initiative's "Initiative for Military Families" (IMF) provides consistent, high-level math and science education in high schools serving military bases across the country. Specifically, we help bring college-level coursework to students in these schools through the highly effective Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum. Because AP courses are standard across the country, IMF not only delivers excellence but also continuity in the curriculum for students whenever their families are reassigned and relocated.

Throughout the country, almost two million young people have at least one parent serving in the military. And today, more than 220,000 of these young people have someone deployed overseas. As if growing up weren't difficult enough, children with mothers or fathers serving in the military face frequent relocations, prolonged absence of one or both parents, and concern for the loved one's safety. What's more, a recent survey found that 34 percent of military parents are "less or not confident" that their children's school is responsive to the unique demands of military life. NMSI is proud to oversee a program that helps address this last concern.

We're also happy that NMSI's IMF program is experiencing great progress. Of particular note is Hawaii, where earlier this month NMSI announced a major expansion of IMF. The Aloha State is a beneficiary of four new IMF schools. One example is Leilehua High School on the island of O'ahu, where approximately 25 percent of the students are from families stationed at the nearby barracks, airfield and naval station. There can also be other benefits of the program beyond the enhanced math and science curriculum. As State Rep. Mark Takai stated during the special school celebration at Leilehua to herald the expansion, "This will be a bridge between the non-military and military families."

More broadly, with the help of NMSI's partners -- Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Boeing, ExxonMobil, Northrop Grumman, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA), the Army Education Outreach Program, the Office of Naval Research, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the O'Donnell Foundation, and the White House's Joining Forces initiative -- the IMF has grown its presence from two schools in both Texas and Kentucky to now 29 schools in 10 states this fall.

But while the IMF's programs have thus far succeeded in bringing NMSI's Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP) to children with parents in uniform, IMF is not just about easing the burden of military families. It also fosters the next generation of our nation's leaders. Our children's ability to think critically and excel in math and science throughout their schooling and in their careers is essential to America's future vitality.

As Dr. Ray Johnson, Lockheed Martin's chief technology officer, remarked about IMF:

"Our future success, and the future technological success of our nation, is dependent on a pipeline of highly trained, highly capable technical talent. This project will help ensure that children of service members who are guardians of our freedom have access to the best education resources possible."

In fact, 50 percent of the high-paying jobs in the future will require more math and science skills. Students from military families should not be left out.

In this light, NMSI has committed to add approximately 30 more schools to the IMF program next year, more than doubling the total number of participant schools. This means that more and more children of our servicemen and women will have access to these superior education resources. And that will put our nation in good hands in the future. Indeed, the future strength of our armed forces depends on service members who are not only well-grounded in math and science, but also have the peace of mind knowing that their children are getting the education they deserve.

So this Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in thanking the members of our military who endure great family sacrifice to ensure that all U.S. families are safe. In their honor, NMSI and its partners will continue to work tirelessly to provide more military families with IMF's high-caliber math and science education. With our children equipped to handle the math and science challenges of tomorrow, we will have many more reasons to be thankful on this holiday in the years to come.

Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is the president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). Prior to joining NMSI she was the dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.