Obama: “Show young people how cool science can be.”

President Obama called for more acclaim for high achieving students in the STEM disciplines. Doug Mills/New York Times

At an event last week, President Obama called for more acclaim for high achieving students in the STEM disciplines. Doug Mills/New York Times

In a speech last week, President Obama outlined an ambitious plan to ratchet up math and science education.

I thought his speech was provocative, especially his comments about South Korean and China.

Take a look:

You know, we live in a world of unprecedented perils, but also unparalleled potential.

Our medical system holds the promise of unlocking new cures, but it’s attached to a health care system that’s bankrupting families and businesses and our government. The sources of energy that power our economy are also endangering our planet. We confront threats to our security that seek to exploit the very openness that is — is essential to our prosperity.

And we face challenges in a global marketplace that link the trader to Wall Street to the homeowner on Main Street to the office worker in America to the factory worker in China; an economy in which we all share in opportunity, but we also share, unfortunately, in crisis.

The key to meeting these challenges, to improving our health and well-being, to harnessing clean energy, to protecting our security and succeeding in the global economy, will be reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation.

And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in those fields that hold the promise of producing future innovations and innovators.

And that’s why education in math and science is so important.

Now, the hard truth is that for decades we’ve been losing ground. One assessment shows American 15-year-olds now rank 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers around their world.

And this isn’t news. We’ve seen warring statistics like this for years. Yet, time and again, we’ve let partisan and petty bickering stand in the way of progress. And time and again as a nation, we’ve let our children down.

So I’m here and you are here because we all believe that we can’t allow division and indifference to imperil our position in the world. It’s time for all of us in Washington and across America to take responsibility for our future.

And that’s why I’m committed to moving our country from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade.

To meet the goal, the Recovery Act included the largest investment in education in history, while preventing hundreds of thousands of educators from being fired because of state budget shortfalls.

Under the outstanding leadership of Arne Duncan, we’ve launched a $4 billion Race to the Top fund, one of the largest investments in education reform in history.

And through the Race to the Top, states won’t just be receiving funding; they’ll have to compete for funding. And in this competition, producing the most innovative programs in math and science will be an advantage.

In addition, we are challenging states to improve achievement by raising standards, using data to better inform decisions and take new approaches to turn around struggling schools.

And because a great teacher is the single most important factor in a great education, we’re asking states to focus on teacher effectiveness and to make it possible for professionals, like many of the people in this room, to bring their experience and enthusiasm into the classroom.

But you are here because you know that the success we seek is not going to be attained by government alone. It depends on the dedication of students and parents and the commitment of private citizens, organizations and companies. It depends on all of us.

And that’s why, back in April, at the National Academy of Sciences, I issued a challenge: to encourage folks to think of new and creative ways of engaging young people in science and engineering. And we are here because the leaders in this room answered that call to action.

Today we are launching the Educate to Innovate Campaign, a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.

We’ve got leaders from private companies and universities, foundations and nonprofits and organizations representing millions of scientists, engineers and teachers from across America.

The initial commitment of the private sector to this campaign is more than $260 million, and we only expect the campaign to grow.

Business leaders from Intel, Xerox, Kodak and Time Warner Cable are teaming up with Sally Ride and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Carnegie Corporation, to find and replicate successful science, math and technology programs all across America.

“Sesame Street” has become a two-year initiative to teach young kids about math and science, and Discovery Communications is going to deliver interactive science content to 60,000 schools, reaching 35 million students.

These efforts extend beyond the classroom. Time Warner Cable is joining with the Coalition for Science After School and FIRST Robotics, the program created by inventor Dean Kamen, which gave us the Cougar Cannon to connect 1 million students with fun after-school activities like robotics competitions.

The MacArthur Foundation and industry leaders like Sony are launching a nationwide challenge to design compelling, freely available science-related video games.

And organizations representing teachers, scientists, mathematicians and engineers, joined by volunteers in the community, are participating in a grassroots effort called National Lab Day to reach 10 million young people with hands-on learning. Students will launch rockets, construct miniature windmills and get their hands dirty. They’ll have the chance to build and create, and maybe destroy just a little bit… to see the promise of being the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things.

The administration is participating as well.

We’ve already had a number of science-focused events with young people at the White House, including astronomy night a few weeks ago. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, under the leadership of a terrific scientist, Steven Chu, have launched an initiative to inspire tens of thousands of students to pursue careers in clean energy. And today I am announcing that we are going to have an annual science fair at the White House with the winners of national competitions in science and technology.

You know, if you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models. And here at the White House, we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.

Through these efforts, we’re going to expand the scope and scale of science and math education all across America. And we’re going to expand opportunities for all our young people, including women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, but who are no less capable of succeeding in math and science and pursuing careers that will help improve our lives and grow our economy.

I also want to note that this is only the beginning. We’re going to challenge the private sector to partner with community colleges, for example, to help train the workers of today for the jobs of tomorrow, even as we make college more affordable, so that by 2010 America once again leads the world in producing college graduates.

Now, I have to say to the young people who are here, we can’t let students off the hook. In the end, the success of this campaign depends on them. But I believe strongly that America’s young people will rise to the challenge if given the opportunity, and given a little bit of a push.

We’ve got to work together to create these opportunities because our future depends on them.

And I just want to mention the importance not only for students but also of parents.

You know, I was in Asia, I think, many of you are aware, for a week. And I was having lunch with the president of South Korea, President Lee. And I was interested in the education policy — they’ve grown enormously over the last 40 years — and I asked them what are the biggest challenges in your education policy.

He said, you know, “The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.” He said, “Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.” He said, “I’ve had to import thousands of foreign teachers because their all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.”

That was the biggest education challenge that he had was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

And the same thing was true when I went to China. And I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about — how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they’ve got 25 million people in this one city.

He said, “We don’t have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions.”

That gives you a sense of what is happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about. That’s what we’re going to be about again.

And I have to say that this doesn’t get a lot of focus. Not once was I asked about education policy during my trip by the press, and oftentimes events like this get short shrift. They’re not what’s debated on cable.

But this is probably going to make more of a difference in determining how well we do as a country than just about anything else that we do here.

And everyone in this room understands how important science and math can be. It goes beyond the facts in a biology textbook or the questions on an algebra quiz.

It’s about the ability to understand our world, to harness and train that human capacity to solve problems and think critically: a set of skills that informs the decisions we make throughout our lives.

So, yes, improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. But it’s also about something more.

It’s about expanding opportunity for all Americans in a world where an education is the key to success. It’s about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are at root scientific problems.

And it’s about the power of science to not only unlock new discoveries, but to unlock in the minds of our young people a sense of promise, a sense that, with some hard work, with effort, they have the potential to achieve extraordinary things.

Now, this is a difficult time in our country and it would be easy to grow cynical and wonder if America’s best days are behind us, especially at a time of economic uncertainty, especially when we’ve seen so many, from Wall Street to Washington, fail to take responsibility for so long.

But I believe we have an opportunity now to move beyond the failures of the recent past and to recapture that spirit of American innovation and optimism.

This nation wasn’t built on greed. It wasn’t built on reckless risk. It wasn’t built on short-term gains and short-sighted policies. It was forged of stronger stuff by bold men and women who dared to invent something new or improve something old, who took big chances on big ideas, who believed that in America all things are possible.

That’s our history. And if we remain fixed on the work ahead, and if we build on the progress we’ve made to date, this is going to be our legacy as well.

24 comments Add your comment

V for Vendetta

November 30th, 2009
12:28 pm

If the government is willing to accept the result of implementing higher standards, then I’m all for them.

But I don’t think they are.


November 30th, 2009
12:30 pm

“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”
– Steve Ballmer

“We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster”
— Carl Sagan

“The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.”
— Carl Sagan (Cosmos)


November 30th, 2009
1:08 pm

Well, that’s a wonderful speech.. but what about gifted education? Everyone isn’t going to be the next Einstein, but we continue to dumb down and ignore the ones who have the chance to do so. Folks with an IQ under 100 just aren’t going to be astrophysicists and brain surgeons.

Korea (and most of the rest of the world) separate the top minds from the rest of the pack as students enter high school. Those that can … go to rigorous college prep schools. Those that cannot go to rigorous trade schools.

Until we understand the concept that a person with an IQ of 80 just can’t do what a person with an IQ of 160 can do, we will always be failures in math and science. We all are happy to recognize that not everyone has the same athletic talent. Only a small percentage of kids make most high school varsity teams… no high school requires that every kid play on the same team and in every game. Kids who don’t make the team just have to get over it and find out what they are good at. Why can’t we do the same thing with academics? Why this obsession with de-tracking?


November 30th, 2009
2:02 pm

Interesting article

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

November 30th, 2009
2:54 pm

Hey Maureen — It’s MOMania here — Our science specials teacher is the most popular teacher in our school. She is fantastic and all the kids love her class. She is gifted certified and has taught for more than 20 years. She is working on 4th and 5th grade science concepts with my first grade son because she knows how interested he is! Our school also participates in Ga. Tech’s science club for kids. It’s for 2nd through 5th graders. I keep encouraging my 3rd grade daughter to give it try because she loves math and science too. So far no luck with her but my son can’t wait until he;’s old enough to go. They do science projects with the Tech kids on Saturdays. He’s decided he likes Ga. Tech (we’re Ga grads) because of this club.


November 30th, 2009
3:05 pm

Well said, flipper. I fight that battle daily.


November 30th, 2009
3:13 pm

Better yet, let’s teach kids that in science ALL data is valid…..not just the data-sets you want to cherry-pick in order to advance an EnviroFacist agenda.

Ignorance is Bliss

November 30th, 2009
4:03 pm

I’m encouraged by Obama’s speech, but middle school science teachers are encouraged to stay within very strict limits.

Like when they found ejecta from Mars in Antarctica, in 1996, and then discovered possible fossil evidence of life in the rocks. The line of reasoning that scientists used to determine the status of those rocks was eye opening. The subject was totally ignored in some schools.

The bible belt trumps the asteroid belt some times, and that’s not fair to the students. How many of Georgia’s teachers know what ion beam milling is and why ion beam milling is relevant in the discussion of life on mars?

This could be why our precious children might one day be serving Chinese children their french fries and coca colas.

If it were up to me, I’d start with a chart of the electro-magnetic spectrum in elementary school. I’d spend time on it every day all the way to middle school. Let them get used to viewing the different spectra of light on a chart so they can know what the universe (and thus themselves) is composed of.

This is the very ignorance that caused our congress to cancel the super collider in Texas during the 90’s. What a great mistake that was. What a scientific disaster! I can’t stand to think about how far science would have advanced by now if only we had finished building the super collider for the lousy 25 billion in today’s money it would have cost.


November 30th, 2009
4:25 pm

De-politicizing science is a big task. Evolution, pollution, stem cell research—you name it, the jeebus nuts jumped in with both feet. Now we have idiots who confuse political controversy with scientific controversy. Good luck educating their children. They don’t know how to evaluate information, just like their parents.

what does IQ really measure

November 30th, 2009
4:54 pm

So, what exactly does an IQ test measure? Do we know what Einstein’s IQ was?

Although I certainly agree that not everyone will be rocket scientists or brain surgeons, how/who/when should that decision be made? It’s easy to say we need to separate students, but the difficult part is always in details.


November 30th, 2009
5:00 pm

He said, you know, “The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.” He said, “Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.” He said, “I’ve had to import thousands of foreign teachers because their all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.”
This is the attitude that American parents need to adopt toward their children’s education. The parental component in the education process is very weak. Many parents expect the teachers to take sole responsible for their kids’ education. Also, the only way some parents ever come to the school is to prevent the school from suspending or expelling their child because of a/some disciplinary violation(s.)
I also chose this part of the post because many Americans are so ethnocentric that they think there is no need for our students to know any language besides English. IMHO, this attitude does not prepare our kids to live in a constantly changing society/world. It’s very embarrasing to me as a retired social studies teacher to see this kind of attitude when I have a foreign exchange student from Taiwan with whom I still correspond, in English. We have got to stop viewing anything different as being bad and unpatriotic and learn to use it to our advantage.
It’s difficult for me to understand how some people think that restricting what is taught in science classes will prepare our students to compete at a global level. Students should learn as much as they can about every subject they take in high school because it provides them with more options for making career choices after completing high school.


November 30th, 2009
5:11 pm

This sounds wonderful; however, as a upper-elementary teacher at a Title 1 school, I wonder just how much science my administrators will let me teach since its test scores do not count towards AYP. I also worry about finding qualified math teachers. I have several support teachers in my room that I have to teach 5th grade math to – and I do mean TEACH, not review the concepts! Sad, sad, sad.


November 30th, 2009
6:58 pm

My favorite line:

“He said, “We don’t have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions.””

Nice (of course, doctors in china don’t make nearly as much as doctors here, but still…)!

I also really like:

“You know, if you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing?


November 30th, 2009
10:05 pm

Then there’s the analysis from the late Gerald Bracey, in his last Bracey Report, released posthumously. In noting that a certain recent test comparison showed Americans ranking near the bottom in science and math, but that the rankings were based on average scores, Bracey added:

“…average students are not likely to be the leaders in fields of mathematics
and science. Those roles are more likely to fall to those scoring well. A publication from OECD itself observes that if one examines the number of highest-scoring students in science, the United States has 25% of all high-scoring students in the world (at least in “the world” as defined by the 58 nations taking part in the assessment—the 30 OECD nations and 28 “partner” countries). Among nations
with high average scores, Japan accounted for 13% of the highest scorers, Korea 5%, Taipei 3%, Finland 1%, and Hong Kong 1%. Singapore did not participate. The picture emerging from this highest-scorer comparison is far different than that suggested by the frequently cited national average comparisons; it is a picture that suggests many American schools are actually doing very well indeed.”


November 30th, 2009
10:35 pm

Maureen? The blog monster is busy tonight…


December 1st, 2009
11:41 am

Science, tech, and engineering have always been cool. What’s not cool is being unemployed and under-employed and impoverished because of the worsening glut of STEM talent in the USA and the vastly excessive STEM guest-work visas.


December 1st, 2009
11:48 am

“U.S. engineers… [are] more creative, excelled in problem solving, risk taking, networking and [have] strong analytical skills…”

“Dozens of employers asked to compare American engineers to their much-vaunted colleagues from India and [Red China] agreed that ‘in education, training, quality of work, you name it, in every which way, Americans are better’. Even the best schools in those countries ‘don’t hold a candle to our best schools.’, he continues. Newly hired American university graduates ‘become productive within 30 days or so. If you hire a graduate of an Indian university, it takes between 3 and 6 months for them to become productive.’”

“Dynamic” US engineers vs. “transactional” foreign engineers.

Hundreds of H-1B visa applications are approved annually for people lacking the equivalent of a US high school diploma, and thousands who lacked the equivalent of a US bachelor’s degree.

Gifted individuals account for only 5% of H-1B visa holders at most, so cutting the numbers of H-1B visas from the current 110K to 2,000 or fewer per year and auctioning them off monthly to the highest bidders on the basis of compensation would improve the likelihood that the best and brightest would be welcomed. Cutting them to 1,000 per year would begin to bring back the huge pool of unemployed and under-employed US citizen science and tech workers toward full employment, and thus boost the economy. If all else fails, we should set the bar by conducting multiple IQ tests and admit those whose average scores exceed 160 (or aggregate ACT score above 34 or aggregate SAT score above 1560 or “new” aggregate SAT score above 2100 or aggregate GRE above 1615). (Einstein’s IQ was estimated to be over 200, the practical limit of the tests that exist.)

It’s impossible to make a case that executives should continue turning their backs on some of the best science, tech, engineering and math talent in the world and instead hire lower-quality, low-skill, cheaper, more easily brow-beaten labor from over-seas.


December 1st, 2009
12:07 pm

Teacherforlife, please define your terms. What significance are we supposed to read from your school somehow being covered or classified by “Title 1″ of some statute? What’s an AYP? If someone knows 5th grade math, can communicate in colloquial American English, and they’re not prone to initiation of force or fraud, then they’re qualified to teach 5th grade math. I’d guesstimate that 75% of college sophomores are quite capable of teaching 5th grade math well, and at least 50% of those I’ve worked with at the university who have PhDs in math education are not. The “certificates”, or “certifications” as some of the worst (mostly government) hyper-credentialists refer to them, are unimportant. Didactic techniques can be quickly learned on the job or in a brief seminar.


December 1st, 2009
4:25 pm

If kids want to see the scientific process in action and have it fun at the same time have them watch “Mythbusters”.

For those who don’t watch it, the premise is that the viewer send them a myth to be proven true or false (in scientific terms, a hypothesis to experiment on). Then they go about proving or disproving the myth with often explosive results (that’s the fun part).

The whole idea is that, in science, you have a guess and then you test it. Of course, in real science you have other groups proving or disproving the same guess and if multiple groups get the same result, then it is accepted as “true”.


December 1st, 2009
6:50 pm

jgo – Title 1 = high poverty. I’ve taught in many Title 1 schools, and most administrators in those schools are highly concerned with only reading and math. Science and social studies are regarded as “extras” and are quietly discouraged from being taught. AYP is annual yearly progress as defined in No Child Left Behind – that report on how each school is doing in reading and math education. Making AYP goals determines whether or not a school is placed on the “needs improvement” list. I’m not talking about teaching techniques – those can be learned (although I might debate you about how quickly); it’s when I have fellow teachers who do not know how to do basic 5th grade skills (adding unlike fractions; percents; dividing decimals) that I worry.


December 1st, 2009
6:51 pm

jgo, if it’s so easy and straightforward, why aren’t you in the classroom with us, imparting your wisdom.
I’ve lost count of the number of PARENTS who tell me they couldn’t spend all day with their own child, much less a group of their kid’s peers and teach them. So, unless you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and shovel against the rising tide of mediocrity that passes for parentin these days, please save it.

Ole Guy

December 2nd, 2009
8:14 pm

Good points, Flip. Just because a kid, however, wants to prepare for, or demonstrates an affinity toward a non-college/trades-oriented program should be no reason why he/she cannot/should not take the upper-level math and science courses of study. Even if the kid grows to be an adult who retires from the trades, the background of higher-level hs studies, while always applicable in the broader spectrum of vocations, will, nonetheless, enable him/her to be a better citizen. And in the end, is that not what it’s all about?

Ole Guy

December 10th, 2009
8:12 pm

Bob, the tv show Mythbusters is not unlike the Mr. Wizzard series of the 50s. Designed to instill and inspire more than a passive viewing audience, these two shows, both excellent in their own rights, captured the imaginations of many. While the Wizzard series was oriented toward a somewhat younger audience than the more-mature appeal of Mythbusters, they both have achieved one common goal…a departure from passive viewing, and a more thought-provoking telecast for young and not-so-young alike.

kiramatali shah

December 14th, 2009
2:33 am

1. There’s a movement to radically change California government, by getting rid of career politicians and chopping their salaries in half. A group known as Citizens for California Reform wants to make the California legislature a part time time job, just like it was until 1966.