Beginning in the mid-20th Century, the United States became the world's dominant leader in science, technology, and innovations. However, in our contemporary "Flat World," the United States needs to produce 400,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) college graduates by 2015, not to regain that premier position, but merely to resume a competitive status.
America's high levels of funding for public education once led to high levels of competence in science. Scientific knowledge paved the way for highly successful research and development. Research led to the discoveries that preceded new innovations and thousands of patents, which created products, markets and jobs. The results were seen in rapidly growing American industries, an unprecedented standard of living, international competitiveness, and relative stability in economic growth, prosperity, and national security.
Last year, Pres. Obama launched a nationwide campaign to "Educate and Innovate" over the next 10 years, because the United States has fallen behind not just the major industrialized nations, but also below countries like Latvia, Chinese Taipei, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, and the Netherlands. When American eighth-graders are compared to their international counterparts from these countries on academic performance in math and science, they continue to fall short. It has been predicted that even blue-collar and factory occupations will require post-secondary education by the year 2012.
Replenishing our pool of American scientists has become a concerted national effort in words, deed and investments. However, more than 40% of the doctoral students in U.S. colleges and universities in 2009 were foreign nationals, and in some fields of science that figure far exceeded the fifty percent mark.
The goals of No Child Left Behind diverted our collective attention to reading and math although our broader educational needs go well beyond just these two areas in the academic curriculum. Consider the following points:
• The SMART disciplines of Science, Mathematics, Arts, Reading and Language Arts and Technology (merged through Thematic interdisciplinary learning) should be morphed into "S.T.R.E.A.M." - Science, Technology, Reading and Language Arts, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics, a modest expansion of the STEM model.
• While STEM makes sense, we apply the skills of reading, writing, language, and art in the pursuit of STEM knowledge. Math, to be completely honest, is a "skill" to be deployed rather than a "content area" to be learned for its own sake.
• New learning/new information is "integrated" in the SMART school scenario, not "acquired" via the more traditional notion of the "acquisition of knowledge."
• Technology includes the highly sophisticated computer-based "tools" for the capturing, manipulating, simulating, and storing of information (previously accomplished via the pencil-paper and printed materials routes). It should also encompass other forms of science equipment used to measure, monitor, and model principles in science.
• Knowledge comes by way of how the brain processes subject matter content with (1) the tools to which we have access, and (2) the skills that one has previously attained to understand science.
• The individual components of SMART and STEM, in reality, should be regarded as essential in the service of developing an understanding of the "Sciences."
• The architects of Bush-era N.C.L.B. program approached the educational challenges of the 21st Century with clearly laudable intentions by identifying the foundational skills for learning. They were "just looking for knowledge in the all the wrong places" to say nothing of the wrong direction. The foundational skills for learning (the tools) were unfortunately mistaken for the foundational goals of knowledge – i.e., content understanding and application, and ultimately, creativity and innovation – for which the prerequisite “tools” were confused with the mission of education. Applied knowledge that advances our species is knowledge put to its best use.
In addition to graduating more students in the fields of science, we need to commit ourselves to generously supporting K-12 education, because it is in our own best long-term self-interests. Nations around the globe witness daily the perils of no commitment to Science, Technology, Reading and Language Arts, Engineering, and Mathematics education. Those countries are competitively and economically marginal at best. Getting into that STREAM-less hole is certainly easier than exiting it. The world's poorest nations annually serve as "Exhibit A," which should prompt us to support K-university level science education at any cost.