For want of a half penny, a future was lost…

March 13, 2012 | By | 4 Replies More

Yesterday, my son shared the video below – Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming (Episode 1)”. It took me back to childhood memories when I was inspired to be a scientist. I remember watching the Apollo launches. I think I remember listening to the Gemini 4 space walk – I was four, and my father recorded it on reel-to-reel, but I don’t remember him ever replaying it. I remember staying up late and falling asleep…thankfully to be awoken by my mother just before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. …Skylab, …the test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Years later, I left behind aspirations of a science career (practicalities…how much money does the average physicist make anyway?) for one of engineering, but the love of space, cosmology, NASA…all still with me…which is why what Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying in this video saddens me all the more.

I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t [sic] factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.

Apart from the applicability of that to just about any of the current Congress’s decisions, he’s dead right in this specific instance. We are not funding science. We are not encouraging and developing engineers. We are failing in educating our young people, not only in the technical fields, but in general.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15 year olds in 65 industrial countries. From the 2009 report:

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among OECD member countries to measure how well 15-year-old students approaching the end of compulsory schooling are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies. The assessment is forward-looking: rather than focusing on the extent to which these students have mastered a specific school curriculum, it looks at their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in curricular goals and objectives, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school.

“…to meet real-life challenges.” Care to guess how the U.S.A. fared in the latest, 2009, assessment? You can see here for yourself, but I’ll spoil it:

  • Reading – 17th (out of 65)
  • Mathematics –31st (significantly below the average)
  • Science – 23rd

We fail. We fail across the board. We fail where it matters. I’m not sure how we will fare in the 2012 PISA, but I seriously doubt we’ll improve. Our system doesn’t support it anymore.

Photograph by Erich Vieth

Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their book “That Used to Be us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, quote Matt Miller, one of the authors of a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, who said

They [American students] are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.”

I don’t know what the answer is. I admit a selfish cop out – we home educate our children – so I don’t think often on what can or should be done; we’ve taken responsibility for preparing our children ourselves. Still, one simple solution seems to be to promote science, math and engineering.

And we start doing that by not cutting NASA’s budget.

Fat chance. How much would YOU pay for the universe?


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Category: American Culture, Education, Science

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

Comments (4)

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  1. Karl says:

    The people in general loose when ever an organization like NASA has its directives changed by fiat because its funding is seen as a road block to racial or in the most recent claimed instance (religious) equality.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    There are a lot of things that can drive innovation.

    During the great depression(and earlier in the deep south), cash strapped farmers took junked auto parts and managed to fit them together in unexpected ways to create one-off labor saving devices and farm implements made from junk parts.

    During the depression, the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL)decided to offer a prize for the amateur operator with the highest quality transmitter, based on the clarity and cleanness of the signal. They were extremely impressed to find that the radio and been built by a 15 year old boy pretty much from scratch. He built many of his tools, including a Bunsen burner, and a mercury diffusion pump, both of which were used to fashion vacuum tubes from test tubes and bits of wire collected from a nearby trash dump.

    NASA funded research focused largely on miniaturization. The spin-offs from NASA fed a broad variety of innovations made possible mainly by decreased costs as these technologies were mass produced.

    Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of innovation inspired by sci-fi movies and tv shows. In the 2005 documentary “How William Shatner Changed the World” , Shatner describes and discusses how many of the original Star Trek TC show inspired the development iof real life inventions, from cell phones and blue-tooth earpieces to the automated sliding doors at the supermarket.

    The 1984 movie “Runaway” featured several fantastic things that now exist:
    The floater-cam, a robotic hovering camera platform about the size of a platter that can send video to a nearby operator.The film also featured numerous special purpose robots for cleaning and agricultural use. But one of the strangest item in “Runaway” was a bullet sized guided missile.
    These all exist now.

    Another movie from the 80’s, “Looker” featured photo realistic computer generated video and a hypnotic modulated light gun that could induce a trance in a targeted person. Both of these technologies exist today.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Karl’s observation, I’d say that the two main problems for U.S. math and science achievement are: (1) the lack of commitment to an inspiring technical goal (“…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth….”); and (2) the rise of radical Christian fundamentalism. When a nation is more obsessed with sports and film celebrities than with answering Big Questions, and when it’s technical ignorance is so bad that roughly 40% of the population rejects evolution in favor of creationism, that nation probably isn’t going to be world leader in technology education.

    That said, the U.S. remains a world leader in industrial innovation and technological advancement, due in large part to corporate and venture capital infrastructure, immigrant intellectuals, and strong legal protection for intellectual property. But I wonder where the U.S. would be if it had both these strengths *and* a fix for the two boat anchors mentioned above.

    Another issue that receives too little attention is the way the U.S. shoots itself in the foot by subsidizing yesterday’s technologies (oil exploration, internal combustion engines, coal mining, etc.) instead of tomorrow’s (alternate energy, cheap broadband, stem cell therapy, etc.) Absent an ability to manipulate the market (as Big Oil, Big Pharma, Wall Street, etc., does), the surest way to get rich (and create jobs) is by investing in *tomorrow’s* winners.

  4. Melina says:

    I think one of the biggest issues facing the USA right now is the attitude that they are the best (I’m Canadian).
    Finland fixed its education system in years, but when the guy who did it got invited to the USA to explain how he did it, they said “but our system is better”.
    Believing that you are the best, will cause you, in short order, to become the worst because you do not accept others’ innovations and advances.

    I am shocked that the population continues to believe that the USA is the best at everything, when it fails at many things. But, propaganda continually says “USA, USA, WE ROCK!!”, so nothing happens.

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