Wednesday, February 01, 2006

State of the Union: More Science and Math Teachers

I did not get a chance to see even one second of the SOTU speech last night, but one initiative I heard about was the president's call for 70,000 more science and math teachers for public schools. I assume this is in response to the efforts put forth quite successfully in places lke India and China, where there is an enormous push to crank out new engineers, mathematicians and scientists in order to compete with the West, particularly the U.S. While anyone who knows me knows I think this is a necessary step for the U.S. to maintain our lead in science and technology, it is also likely an unrealistic goal as long as teacher salaries remain the lowest among any profession in the U.S. Other fields of study pay much more than one could make in teaching, and many of our best and brightest have been going into those areas of study (business, law, medicine, and even journalists make more on average). Zenpundit touches on this topic, as well.

I did want to address one question I have heard a few people bring up, inculding one of the comments to the Zen post, and that is "Why should Americans want to study math and science in the first place? Why should it be a national priority?" It does seem silly to pursue teaching math and science if you come at it from a purely economic perspective. But it is absolutely in the best interest of the nation to get a strong base for the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. I would argue it may be the single most important issue raised in last night's address, simply because almost everything else Bush addressed depends on science and technology.

To win the war on terror, for example, will require us to constantly improve on telecommunications and surveillance technologies of all types. Our military response to any potential conflict is built around our lead in technology, which in turn stems from science research. As we delve deeper into a digital world, where health, insurance, financial, government, military, and all other types of records is being digitized and placed in supposedly secure databases, we will always need to push the envelope to develop the next generations of encryption and security hardware and software. This is built around mathematical algorithms and technology. The president called for a push for cutting our dependence on oil. This will only happen when we get serious about developing new and more efficient methods of production for alternative sources of energy. We cannot imagine all the possible uses and paths we may one day take when it comes to nanotechnology and molecular biochemistry. Medical and agricultural research needs to be maintained. In short, our entire economy is built around the products of science and technology. We will need some number of our best and brightest to go into all of these fields, and we simply are not seeing the numbers majoring in these areas with the current crop of college students. Or reliance on foreign students and scientists to keep our research infrastructure and programs intact is showing signs of weakening as well, as more of them head back to their own countries.

In the end, it is a nice thing to say in the state of the union to show you (finally) realize it is an upcoming crisis (and something nice to say in an election year), but I don't see it happening until there are financial incentives for students to pursue it. It all starts in K-12 science education, particularly in high school and AP type classes, where serious students in technical areas get hooked before they go to college. There is already a shortage of qualified high school science and math teachers, which must have some correlation to the shortage of college students in these areas, and within the next 15 years or so we will need to be prepared for the consequences if the present trend does not change. But it will take money, and with continuing record deficits and spending and permanent tax cuts (i.e. less revenue), the Bush proposal is meaningless and unrealistic. I am afraid this was just a statement for show and politics, with no plan at all as to how we will accomplish it.

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