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Good and not-so-good in new Obama science ed plan

President Obama's announcement that 100 corporate chief executives will collaborate with him to improve math and science education has the potential to enliven school for disadvantaged students and change many of their lives. But it will not do much for long campaign to get young Americans in general more interested science, math, technology and engineering as careers.

The business group, led by former astronaut Sally Ride and former CEOs from Intel, Xerox, Time Warner Cable and Eastman Kodak, have created the non-profit Change the Equation organization to bring successful, privately funded programs to 100 schools and communities which serve many disadvantaged students. Their action is buttressed by a new report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommending more and better training for science and math teachers.

Author Alfie Kohn has shown how intrinsic motivation--getting excited about solving mysteries in science--is more likely to influence a student's life choices than extrinsic motivation--getting paid for good science grades. The president, the corporate executives and the science advisers are trying to fill classrooms with people who have done science and can communicate its appeal to kids. This is what we need to raise achievement in our inner city schools. Some of the best urban and rural schools have fifth-graders doing experiments. It works.

We are likely to produce more minority and low-income scientists as a result. Even if they shed those interests for other pursuits (until I was about 15, and discovered how cold observatories were at night, I wanted to be an astronomer), they will have gained academic skills that will give them many other choices.

But the business executives who have been campaigning for years for more support for STEM (science, techology, engineering and math) in schools have to accept the fact that we Americans have a relatively unenthusiastic attitude toward such jobs. In Eastern Europe and Asia, parents want their children to be scientists. Here, they prefer careers in law or medicine. Notice that our TV heroes are most likely to be doctors, lawyers or police officers thinking of going to law school.

Talk to real scientists and you see the problem. There often isn't much money in it. A medical researcher told me recently about a new drug he developed. Years later it has yet to reach the market, or pay him any dividends, because he still hasn't found a company willing to invest in the trials required for federal approval. Getting grants for pure scientific research is even harder.

Science for him, however, just as for school children, has its intrinsic rewards. It is good to get more of that feeling into our schools.

By Jay Mathews  | September 16, 2010; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  American adversion to science jobs, Obama science initiative, business executives start new organization to promote science and math in 100 schools, new report recommends training better science teachers  
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Next: What No Child Left Behind did and didn't do


This is the problem with "education" in America and in the Obama education department. How about engaging some scientists and engineers instead of the corporate grifters who have been off-shoring science and engineering jobs and misuesing H-1B and H-# visa to drive down wages for the last 20 years?

Posted by: mcstowy | September 16, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Correction: That should be "misusing H-1B and H-3 visas..."

Posted by: mcstowy | September 16, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

A bunch of business executives pushing STEM is going to come across as pretty flaky to 12 year olds who are not too young to ask the obvious question, "If this stuff is so great, why didn't you get into it.

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Posted by: shankartripathi85 | September 16, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I remember years ago in an education course (reading), the professor warned us that in making posters for class, often the beautiful thing would go along so well only to have a flaw on the last line. Now, I didn't carefully read the entire noted "Report to the President, and I am certainly not annoyed by an occasional misspelled word in casual writing since I find myself misspelling/mistyping so often, however, given the number of folks that must have read over this fine report, this I kinda found funny (found on p.124 of 126):

Recommendation 8-3: Connecting Education Leaders with Best Practices in STEM Education
The administration should help ensure that every education leader – including school principals, district leaders, and state superintendants – has knowledge of the unique issues and best practices in achieving excellent STEM education through programs such as those described above.

Note the spelling of superintendents.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 16, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I guess I'm incredulous. The obvious question is "Why the H____ are BUSINESS executives doing the promoting? Why not engage the scientists - and pay them - to present to the students......

It makes me more suspicious than ever that corporate America (?) is directing everything, and perhaps Obama's Ed department is shackled to their self-interests.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 16, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I guess I'm incredulous. The obvious question is "Why the H____ are BUSINESS executives doing the promoting? Why not engage the scientists - and pay them - to present to the students......

It makes me more suspicious than ever that corporate America (?) is directing everything, and perhaps Obama's Ed department is shackled to their self-interests.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 16, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

One of the biggest barriers for girls and young women interested in science is the notoriously family-unfriendly hours required in most STEM jobs. That is the reason why nearly all of my female friends who loved science went into the health professions or teaching.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 16, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Forgot to mention that I'm at the very tail end of Gen X so my friends and I were choosing careers in the mid-90's, long after STEM fields were opened up to women.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 16, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Can somebody please explain to me WHY we need more scientists?

You said it yourself: "There often isn't much money in it." The laws of economics tell us that means we have a GLUT of scientists, not a dearth.

I'm just sayin'.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | September 16, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

"Can somebody please explain to me WHY we need more scientists?... The laws of economics tell us that means we have a GLUT of scientists, not a dearth."

Here's the reason why there is a need for more scientists and engineering GRADUATES than there are technical positions: MANAGEMENT

In any organization where technical work is conducted, there are technical positions and management positions (along with a lot of administrative positions, etc). Now if the managers don't have a technical background, they sure can't do an adequate job deciding whether sufficient progress is being made by the technical people in their individual projects.

How does one decide among multiple technical proposals for limited funding if one is clueless as to the technical merit of what is being proposed? Maybe a coin toss? How about word count? Rely on the number of color photographs in the proposal?

I see technical proposals all the time that are complete BS. But if you don't know a little physics, you'd be taken in by the pie-in-the-sky promises in these proposals. Perpetual motion machines any one?

Then there are science and mathematics teachers in elementary and high schools. Think maybe a teacher who majored in science or math in college might do a little better job than a teacher who majored in PE or some other non-STEM major? I do.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | September 16, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

@farfaxvaguy: A teacher who majored in P.E. would be teaching P.E.--at least in a pubic school. Teachers major in the subjects that they teach. I guess you are not familiar with certification requirements.

Posted by: musiclady | September 16, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

"@farfaxvaguy: A teacher who majored in P.E. would be teaching P.E.--at least in a pubic school. Teachers major in the subjects that they teach. I guess you are not familiar with certification requirements."

No, I'm not familiar with teacher certification requirements and I'm sure you'reright about teachers teaching within their major areas - in Fairfax County and other high end school systems.

But I also know that out in the hinterland a lot of teachers instruct outside their majors for the simply reason that school systems cannot hire science and math teachers.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | September 16, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

I know how difficult motivating students can be. I know that it is not simply a question of money. Throwing money at the problem never addresses the core issue which is the individual motivation of the student. Look at Arlington ISD! How much money gets spent per pupil? What result obtains? The educational system of Finland is an example of one that works. In the social utilitarian perspective of someone such as John Rawls, the individual school districts such as Washington's, or Arlington's, or Alexandria's, might find the best means to engage the greatest number of students in ways most conducive to their creative learning and problem solving abilities. This effort should reach across social and economic differences, so that 'disadvantaged students' benefit from their school experiences. Finding the incentive that inspires and stirs the creativity of students is shown to be most effective. Engaging students by means they can relate to enahnces their 'intrinsic' motivation. I believe it is called imaginative learning!

Posted by: ronlinkjr | September 16, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large: "It makes me more suspicious than ever that corporate America (?) is directing everything, and perhaps Obama's Ed department is shackled to their self-interests."

In my prior comment, I should have been more specific; I should have said all of the folks involved in the developing/writing of the report who have read over it (at least some should have given it a good proof reading)... But, perhaps, it was a mere freudian lapse since the Duncan & Co. model of education may wish to do away with state superintendents and replace them with the model of State CEO of Education, who will, of course, answer to the US Sec. of Ed.

Another thing, doubt it will be long until the non-profit Change the Equation begins to hunt federal grants. Oh, connections, connections.

Jay: "Some of the best urban and rural schools have fifth-graders doing experiments."

And they should, and for all elementary grade levels, in ALL schools, even with limited supplies and even with teachers that haven't majored in STEM areas. They can also invite scientists or grad students into classes. Museums often have kits to send out to schools for little or no cost to borrow. Businesses sometimes donate older lab supplies when they receive new. Seek.

I have a son that just landed a great job as a scientist in a fairly narrow field. He favorite book when he was a young, "Boy Scientist," an oldie that would probably bore most kids to tears.

Kids should be given some freedom to have/conduct their eureka moments in which the outcome of the experiement isn't seemingly well scripted.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 16, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm sick of hearing that there aren't enough Americans in STEM fields. There are plenty. Yes, K-12 education sucks but our universities are still the best (where do you think the Indians and Chinese learned from?) and produce plenty of great graduates.

I'm Mechanical Engineering grad from a top-25 program, 3.4 GPA, internship experience, and what does it get me? After 2 years of unsuccesful searching for a job in my field, I'm back at the summer job I had in high school. And many of my classmates are in the same situation.

Posted by: LRT24 | September 16, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

The biggest reason students don't go into STEM fields is that there are no jobs,unless you know exactly technology XYZversion3.2202, and preferably are on a H1B visa so you don't cost too much. Business has eaten its seed corn in the STEM disciplines by offshoring the entry level jobs, and by refusing to train existing employees in new technologies. Students coming into college see the experiences of their parents and relatives, laid off after 20 years to be replaced by an Indian or Ukrainian contractor, and they say "no thanks".

Posted by: bkmny | September 17, 2010 6:14 AM | Report abuse

Our chldren may have "a relatively unenthusiastic attitude toward such jobs" because everything in schools is geared to learning for a test. We need to motivate students to want to take science, math, etc. by teaching it differently. 90% of science and math classes are still taught with an instructor in the front lecturing students on content that is too narrow and deep to promote understanding and interest. Academic teachers need to take a lesson from Career Tech teachers. Career Tech has been teaching STEM for years but are completely unnoticed because the people who make decisions live with blinders on. If kids do not do well in science, math, english, we automatically want to add another class when we should be thinking about teaching those subjects in a different way.

Posted by: nancybrown999 | September 17, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Most of the "LAME-STREAM" media won't touch these issues see their Corporate Leaders feed on Cheap (professional) Labor too HUH? It all appears to be connected.
The Corporate media is therefore giving a free pass to Politicians in:

Screwing the American worker!!!!


Posted by: Rbengrguy | September 19, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

All Kids Are Engineers! Science is Knowledge! Technology is NOT Computers!

Technology is what enables life. Engineering is the application of ingenuity. Science is the process of vetting facts from fiction.

Without technology, we would die. All kids understand that. Instinctively, they try new things and get satisfaction from results -- even in utero. Engineering is an innate activity of all living beings. Even scientists use ingenuity in forming hypotheses and planning experiments.

The relationship between scientists and engineers is like a balloon: Scientists work at the outer surface, allowing only proven knowledge to enter from outside. As the body of knowledge ever increases and the volume grows larger, more and more engineers are working inside to interconnect and apply this knowledge. The area of the skin increases as the square of the size, while the volume increases with the cube.

Where there is no engineering, there is poverty -- with or without science. Placing ingenuity at the core of education encourages learning. Teaching is impossible without hunger for reasons to learn.

Here in Maine, we celebrate Engineers Week with a statewide open house where over 1,000 kids collect to try out what we do in our daily work, and their eyes and their questions and their suggestions are our reward.

These kids -- boys AND girls -- know why they need to learn, and they beg for it.

Posted by: PeteMickelson | September 20, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse


Thank you for your post - a pleasure to read.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 20, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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