Losing the Science Race

Fair warning. this one gets pretty sappy

It seems that almost every day there is something in the news about the declining numbers of science, engineering, and technology graduates in the United States. I shared stories a while back about (…larger than just machines) how Microsoft and IBM are building research centers in China, because they can not find enough qualified U.S. technologists and engineers.

The most personally compelling statistics that I have found comes from Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. The apparent lack of interest in science and technology and the impressive education that students are receiving in India and China seem to be one of the focal points of the book. The set of statistics that impressed me the most was the changing demographics of NASA employees.

According to the March 7, 2004 issue of Florida Today, as reported by Friedman:

  • 40% of NASA’s 18,146 employees are over 50 years of age.
  • 22% are over 55
  • Only 4 percent are under 30
  • The number of NASA employees over the age of 60 out number those under 30, about 3 to 1*

Perhaps this struck me because I have grown up with NASA and experienced the thrill of all four manned programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle). But that said, I want to put a different twist on this — as is my style.

Of the times that I have known, hands-down, the most innovative period was the 1990s. We found ourselves with a new technology that dramatically changed the way that we thought about our world and experience. The creativity that these opportunities unleashed was breathtaking. It was something that I payed a lot of attention to, being a technologist and a former history teacher.

As I read the stories of the most exciting projects that came out of this period (most of which died), it seemed that the sparks behind the ideas were not science, engineering, and technology people. They were often people who came out of the humanities. They were people who became electrified by these new ways of using information, and invented products that empowered people to use information to enrich their lives.

Even though we definitely need more students going into science, engineering, and technology fields, what is truly missing in what and how we are teaching our children in my country is creativity and inventiveness in learning. Regardless of whether their future is in science, technology, business, academics, or communication, if citizens can creatively and joyously invent, then they will adapt and prosper.

One more statement (and here’s the sappy part):

If you think of the problems that face the world, that truly hold us back from the advancements in the human experience that are within our grasp, they are not problems of science and technology. They are problems of people getting along with other people. It is the social end of the spectrum that we really need work in. This is what truly worries me about the calls for more focus on science instruction — in a time when we seem so unwilling to pay for it. Again, we will lose what is truly important to people. And that’s community and society — other people.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Girous, 2005.

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.