Obama redoubles push to improve science education

During his address to members of the National Academy of Sciences, today, President Obama outlined a number of budget and policy priorities. Key among them: boosting interest among youngsters in science and math — with an eye towards encouraging them to consider careers in allied fields. The president also pledged to improve the quality of educators that train the nation’s youth in science and math.

“We know that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow,” the president said. And U.S. students no longer stand on a pedestal. They have fallen behind their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Korea, among others, Obama noted. And in one assessment, American 15-year olds “ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to other nations.

“We know that the quality of math and science teachers is the single most influential factor in determining whether a student will succeed or fail in these subjects,” he said. “Yet in high schools, more than 20 percent of students in math and more than 60 percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields.“ Moreover, Obama noted, this problem is slated to worsen substantially: “There is a projected shortfall of more than 280,000 math and science teachers across the country by 2015.”

What to do? The president pointed to one reasonably new incentive. Starting today, he said, “states making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete later this fall for additional funds under the Secretary of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program.” Created through the Stimulus-funding package, this program rewards states that boost their academic standards, assessments, curricula and partnerships with outside groups.

The president also challenged schools to find better educators in math and science — individuals who will more reliably “engage students and reinvigorate those subjects.” Toward that end, he said his administration would support “inventive approaches” — such as programs that retain and reward “effective” teachers. We’ve heard that line before. Reward teachers’ performance, not attendance. Unions may not like that, but something’s clearly got to change.

Obama also called for creating “new pathways for experienced professionals to go into the classroom. There are right now chemists who could teach chemistry, physicists who could teach physics, statisticians who could teach mathematics.” He’s right. Only there’s more to teaching than knowing the subject matter. Subject proficiency should be a prerequisite (how novel), but knowing how to communicate effectively should also be a minimum requirement. And as we all know, many good scientists aren’t patient, don’t have good communication skills, and/or don’t know how to motivate headstrong adolescents with everything on their mind but chemistry, physics and math.

In fact, Obama seems to recognize this too. Which is why he recommended that scientists and educators encourage students “to get a degree in science fields and a teaching certificate at the same time.”

In today’s address, the president also challenged researchers to visit classrooms throughout the nation so that more students could understand the role of science and engineering in shaping the world — their iPod-driven, texting oriented, Facebook-dominated environment — and witness the “enthusiasm” of researchers that led to these and other elements of everyday life.

The new administration has also set a goal to enhance the United States’ ability to compete for high-wage, high-tech jobs and to foster the next generation’s best scientists and engineers. By 2020, the president pledged, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Tax credits and grants will be there to “make a college education more affordable,” he added.

The president’s new budget would also triple the number of National Science Foundation research fellowships to graduate students. (Really huge applause.) Obama noted that this program was created a half-century ago as part of the space race. However, in the succeeding years, its size has changed little, despite the skyrocketing number of students now available to benefit from them.

Federal investments can do a lot to revamp the nation’s flagging research and education enterprises. But there’s also plenty that money can’t buy, the president told research dignitaries in the room. “So today I want to challenge you to use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation.”

Other highlights of the President’s address today included several other recycled themes, such as:

1) the decision to make new programs that produce, use and save energy the #1 priority for federal investments in innovation. Indeed, Obama noted, that’s one reason “why we put a scientist in charge of the Department of Energy.” That scientist, Nobel physicist Steven Chu, was sitting in the audience and won a huge round of applause.

2) The Obama administration is in the process of working to put a market-based cap on carbon emissions. Big business is not a fan of this proposal, Congress is learning. I guess the carbon cap-and-trade proposal was highlighted in hopes of getting the science community to help lobby for its adoption.

3) And on March 9, the president noted, he signed an executive memo pledging that “the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.” The president noted that his new science adviser has been tasked with making sure that in future “facts are driving scientific decisions, not the other way around.” Amen to that.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.