The Making of America’s Next Golden Age: Start With the Student Next Door

Dean C. Garfield photo

In the next few days, over 50 million people-nearly one quarter of our nation's population-will be streaming onto campuses across the country. Even putting aside the sheer number of students attending school, the training of the next generation of leaders should be cause for excitement about America's future. Unfortunately, based on today's realities these students are more likely to play a scientist on TV rather than actually become one.

This is not to say that today's youth are not highly motivated in solving today's looming challenges, such as sustaining our planet, and developing the next life changing technology. They are. However, they are not being adequately prepared to be the future leaders they want to become. The vast majority of middle school students would rather clean their room, eat their vegetables, go to the dentist or take out the garbage than learn math or science.

Clearly, there is a pressing need to inspire our nation's youth to develop the important science, technology, engineering and math skills they must have to become tomorrow's scientific problem solvers. Without immediate action, another generation of students will be ill prepared to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of the jobs created in the next decade will require some level of math and science skills. Despite improvements in test scores, U.S. 12th graders continue to perform below the average for 21 countries in mathematics and science. The U.S. ranked 24 out of 29 industrialized nations in an international standardized test of mathematics skill and knowledge. 

We believe American students are capable of improving their collective math and science skills, but it will take a corresponding improvement in their education in these disciplines. Currently, more than 20 percent of students in math and more than 60 percent of students in chemistry and physics are being instructed by teachers without expert knowledge in those fields. Now is the time to bend the current trajectory by launching a national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), initiative that heeds the President's call to "restore science to its rightful place, and . . . to wield technology's wonders to meet the demands of a new age." Let's start with the basic building blocks: put talented, inspired, and educated math and science teachers in the classroom. 

A focus on STEM will help to create new industries as well as revive our manufacturing sector that has declined by more than 100 percent in the last 40 years. As the Carnegie Corporation recently concluded in its "opportunity equation report," "the nation's capacity to innovate for economic growth and the ability of American workers to thrive in the global economy depend on a broad foundation of math and science learning, as do our hopes for preserving a vibrant democracy and the promise of social mobility for young people that lie at the heart of the American dream."

The technology sector stands ready to do its part, but it will require more than a handful of willing partners to drive long-term change. The private sector, philanthropy, and local, state, and federal governments should partner to accomplish at least four objectives: (1) build a national STEM infrastructure, (2) improve the pipeline of STEM educators, (3) create demand for STEM education among youth and parents, and (4) improve access to and coordination of STEM resources.

The information and communications technology sector is demonstrating strong leadership in this area and has spent numerous resources. For example, the Dell Foundation focuses over 70% of its philanthropic activities on education, specifically with its TechKnow program which partners with school districts, public institutions and the community to prepare youth through technology training and hands on experience. To date, more than 25,000 students have graduated from this program, with 40 percent of graduates being women and 80 percent from minority populations. In addition Texas Instruments has given $75 million over the past 10 years to colleges and universities. Overall programs funded by the Texas Engineering and Technical Consortium, a program supported by Texas Instruments, have increased the number of electrical engineering and computer science graduates at a faster rate than schools nationwide. Time Warner Cable has also committed to spending $100 million over the next five years on STEM. The individual work and leadership of these companies, among many others, should be commended. It should serve to encourage every industry to do whatever they can-large or small-to ensure more of those 50 million people heading to school, graduate better prepared to become the next generation of leaders who will meet America's 21st century challenges.

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