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STEM: Give Kids Projects to Save and Inspire the World

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By Thomas Armbruster:

“Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…”

— President Barack Obama, March 23, 2015

The Department of Education notes that The United States has developed as a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers, and innovators.  President Obama has made it a priority to recruit students into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math or STEM.  That is where the well-paying jobs of the future will be with the largest need in biomedical engineering.  Not only are there not enough students studying these disciplines, there is also a shortage of teachers.  If you think of this as an economic security issue it means one thing — the U.S. will be less productive compared with our global competitors.  The education community has recognized the need and is responding well, but there is one critical piece missing.  Inspiration.  Inspiration that can be provided by the U.S. government choosing big, overarching goals.  Not just repairing roads and bridges, but taking on once in a lifetime “moon shot” type challenges.

Students, especially the youngsters we most need to reach, do not care about the 401k’s or job security that will come with a STEM job.  They want to be inspired.  If we want students to make these careers their choice, we have to set the bar high.  The STEM initiative should be paired with any number of challenging endeavors.  Here are ten goals.

  • Take back leadership in the space program from the private sector and other countries. Give NASA the tools to get to Mars first and challenge young people to get involved. Build a permanent lunar base.  Build a better listening dish than the Chinese and for goodness sake do not depend on the Russians to get us into orbit.  We should build our own rockets.
  • Build the world’s best rapid transit system. Too hard?  Why?  We were the first to get to the moon, so we have the technical capability.  We just need the will.  New York to Los Angeles in 45 minutes?  If Elon Musk thinks we can do it, why not make it a national project?
  • Go oil free by 2050. We are moving in the right direction and the world consensus on climate has produced an ambitious agreement.  We should be the world leader in alternative energy.
  • Focus on the oceans. Kids are attracted to marine life and science can lead the way to sustainable fisheries and restoring marine habitats, including coral.  Clean up the Pacific garbage patch while we are it.
  • Build the world’s highest skyscraper
  • Find a cure for Alzheimer’s by 2025.
  • Save the Whales already.
  • For goodness sake perfect the jetpack I’ve been waiting for since I was five years old!
  • Safeguard vulnerable communities from sea level rise.
  • Reforest the world.

There are plenty of challenges.  The U.S. government should pick some winners, provide the funding and run with it.

The White House STEM initiative has also recognized the need to attract minorities into STEM programs and to eliminate gender disparities. The National Science Foundation put out a “report card” on the progress of STEM programs.  There is a long way to go. Their 2014 report found that few 8th grade students from any demographic group managed an “advanced” score for science and no demographic as a group reached a 50% score of “proficient” in science or math.

The movie Top Gun upped recruiting for Navy’s flyer program by 500%.  Young Americans responded to 9/11 by joining the military, State Department and other security agencies.  Matt Damon’s quote “I’m going to have to science the #*%&! out of this” in the Martian was certainly inspirational for the science community.

My son taught 8th grade for a year overseas.  One day some NASA reps came by and showed the kids how to make rockets.  Bryan said that one of his students, who was not achieving well academically had an absolute gift for making rockets.  That one visit taught the student that he had an engineering aptitude he never knew he had.  I hope he will find an opportunity to go with that ability.

Donald Trump would like to make America great again.  Well, we can do great things.  We are ready for Mr. Trump’s to-do list of great things.  Hillary Clinton has taken a more thoughtful approach and proposes granting a path to citizenship for non-citizens who are conferred advanced degrees in STEM fields.  This generation can put their phones down (I think), roll up their sleeves, and tackle today’s biggest challenges.  But we need to challenge them, inspire them, and lead them.  And then, look out, because the future will only accelerate faster as we put these kids talents to work. Young people need to be inspired.  They need to be given projects that save the world!

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

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