It is officially election season in the United States again and Politicians are talking about the economy and jobs. The buzz word “innovation” has let politicians put a new spin on education, which has been “hot topic” for the past decade.
As a sign of how far behind American students are, both Democrats and Republicans, who agree on nothing, agree that that overhauling America’s lagging Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education is paramount to the United States’ long term economic success. However, due to changes in what it means to innovate and the burgeoning technological superpowers of India and China, this is not just another “sputnik moment” as Politicians like to spin it, and improving proficiency in mathematics and science will not be enough to keep the United States innovative and on the cutting edge.
Historically America has held two major advantages in remaining innovative when compared to the rest of the world. First, it has held advanced knowledge in STEM that most other nations were not privy to. Second it has offered STEM workers higher wages. The first advantage is already all but lost, and the second is now quickly following suit.
While during the Cold War the United States was an unrivaled innovator, the advantage of knowledge in advanced sciences has now been reduced to a sliver so highly focus in military technology that it is largely irrelevant to the modern-innovation economy. Though basic research is still critical, today’s largest impact innovation has less to do with breakthrough discoveries as it does with coming up with an original idea to combine existing technologies in a new way. On top of that, any relevant gap that remains in scientific knowledge is quickly being closed. In 2011 the Pentagon’s annual report revealed that the Chinese military is “steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces.” The report goes on to conclude that Beijing’s ultimate goal is to become “a world-class economic and military power by 2050.”
Possibly worse still are the higher than average wages America has traditionally in STEM careers to draw in top innovators from foreign countries are disappearing. As leading Harvard University Labor economist Richard Freeman predicted in 2009: in the next 30-50 years China will match US wages in STEM careers. When that happens the US will effectively lose its last major draw for foreign innovators. Meaning that if innovation continues to rely on “freak” one-in-a-million ideas, Americans better find a new way to bring in those rare people or get pretty good at making freak ideas happen really freaking frequently, because if innovation boils down to a straight numbers game the United States is going to lose.
1.3 Billion: Total population of China.
1.2 Billion: Total population of India.
312 Million: Total population of United States.
(If innovation is linked ideas that are truly one-in-a-million you can do the math to see who will be the most innovative -- unless you're an American, because statistically speaking the math might be too hard.)
What Needs To Be Done: (Innovative innovators innovate innovation education?)
Politicians aren’t wrong; We do need to reform STEM education to increase the number of math and science literate, and it will be impossible to remain innovative without without enough scientists, programmers, engineers, and skilled STEM manufactures and technicians. More scientifically competent employees will not, however, equate to the disproportionate creativity and innovation that will be required to outweigh the innovation of the sheer number of Chinese and Indian workers that will join the workforce in coming years. (Note though that while many of these foreign graduates are ill-equipped for jobs, even marginal improvements in China and India’s education systems will have dramatic effects due to the sheer number of students.)
Increasing the creativity of America’s scientists and engineers then is equally if not more critical than increasing sheer numbers in the in the long run. If the United States wants to remain innovative we need to ensure that more Thomas Edisons, Leonardo Da Vincis, Henry Fords, Albert Einsteins, Nikola Teslas, Steve Wozniaks, Bill Gateses, Sergey Brins, Larry Pages, Steve Jobses and Mark Zuckerbergs come out of a single generation here in America than anywhere else in the world. This is a tall order, and what should be done to achieve this tremendous feat is open to debate.
But, as a recent public high school graduate -- who placed second in category at California State Science Fair twice, was top in my schools’ engineering program, and will be pursuing an engineering degree at Columbia University -- I am as about well qualified as anyone to weigh in on STEM education; so here’s the short version of what I think we need to do...
Guidelines From A High School Graduate:1) Embrace Science and Math’s inherent creativity by guiding students through the discovery process while playing up what discovery is (i.e. creativity.) My physics teacher Mr. Warren built labs with loose objectives and looser guidelines. Mr Warren didn’t give us answers or step by step guides. He only gave just enough help so that we might discover the rules of the universe on our own; and it worked. I learned more calculus from Mr Warren than I ever did in my calculus class, because Mr Warren didn’t teach us calculus; Mr Warren didn’t even teach us physics! What Mr Warren taught us was how to and teach ourselves through discovery.
2) Quit focusing on facts and the "Scientific Method" and start focusing on the actual thought process. If I’ve learned anything from going to science fair, it’s that the scientific method is only the tip of the iceberg; science is how you get to asking the question in the first place. Before Newton if anyone had asked why things fall they hadn’t successfully created and distributed a scientific theory as to why. The hardest and most important part of science or invention is coming up with the idea, the question to ask from which all other work is based and we don’t teach this.
3) Dismiss the stereotype of scientists and science. In mid June of this year Wired Science ran the article “Why the Scientist Stereotype Is Bad for Everyone, Especially Kids.” The article struck a chord with me, and hopefully it does with you as well. If you went out and asked a non-scientist to come up with ten adjectives to describe science chances are the list will include one or more of the following: logical, difficult, cold, sterile, boring, and structured. Are those accurate descriptions of science? No, absolutely not! Just try reading Jon Franklin’s Pulitzer Prize winning feature “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” and saying science is sterile and logical. Or perhaps Columbia University neuroscience professor Stuart Firestein’s “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” is more your speed.
Keeping America innovative by overhauling STEM education won't be easy, but as President Kennedy declared when America set its sights going to the moon, "[We do these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."