The following is from the Aug. 24, 2007, edition of The Austin American-Statesman


America needs a new formula
for success in the sciences

By Geoffrey C. Orsak
Dean of the School of Engineering
Southern Methodist University

Stories of human tragedy have a remarkable way of exposing overlooked truths. The recent headlines surrounding the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the mine disaster in Utah, the concern for the safe return of astronauts in the space shuttle Endeavour and the upcoming anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reaffirm the central role that engineering and science play in defining our lives and our culture.

Unfortunately, President Bush's signature on the bipartisan $33.6 billion America Competes Act went virtually unnoticed against the backdrop of these painful human stories. Yet this legislation could prove to be one of Bush's most enduring legacies, not unlike President Kennedy's 1961 uniquely American challenge to land a person on the moon and return them safely by the end of the decade.

Though it lacks the drama of Kennedy's call to action, the act has the potential to shape the future of our country for decades to come.

The America Competes Act has three major components:

Doubling funding for basic research programs in physical sciences and engineering like nanotechnology, as well as in high risk alternative energy sources necessary for our economic stability.

Giving math and science teachers research-based tools and professional development to improve public school students' achievement.

Expanding low-income students' access to advanced placement/international baccalaureate coursework by training more high school teachers to lead the most rigorous courses in math, science and critical foreign languages.

The hard reality is that, since the end of the Cold War, we have lost our taste to invest in the long-term returns offered by a world-class education system that feeds basic science and engineering research. We are falling behind in the pace of discovery and, ultimately, in our ability to compete in a world driven by innovation. It affects all of us.

Our future requires the competitive advantage of education and research. But here's the rub: U.S. high schools simply are not producing enough graduates with the interest or the knowledge to pursue the secondary education and training they need to compete for the future's complex jobs, much less feed the pipeline of new researchers and innovators.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates doesn't mince words when he says American high schools are obsolete: Even when they're working exactly as designed, they cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

The America Competes Act is a significant step toward solving that problem, but only if Congress chooses to fund it. The hefty price tag is likely a tough sell against the backdrop of a growing federal deficit, but we fail to invest in this at our own peril.

Why have our schools evolved so little over time? Families don't want schools to experiment on their children. But when we accept that notion, we sadly lock our kids into a 1950s education system.

Funding the America Competes Act is a strong starting point. But we also have to change our philosophy about how we look at research and education. We must be willing to invest in high risk initiatives in basic research, education and teacher development. With measured risk comes the opportunity for real change and real success. And when we find something that works, we must put it into the classrooms quickly.

This kind of investment is proving itself today through role models like Andrew Brown, a teacher at W.T. White High School in Dallas. By offering an engineering curriculum developed by the Infinity Project at SMU, he gives students an opportunity to touch the future by designing and building their own cell phones and using them to call each other in class.

This is not throwing money at the problem it's reshaping the answer.

So here's the challenge. We all recognize that traveling down the path of scientific discovery presents the chance of failure. And when we try to advance education, we have to be willing to shoulder some risk.

America's historic advantage has been its drive to compete, to win against all odds. It's time to regain that advantage.

Orsak is the dean of SMU's School of Engineering and co-founder of the Infinity Project, a national high school program for engineering and innovation.

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