BILL CRAWFORD: STEM education needed

By Bill Crawford

Know what a fractal is? How about a maser? A pion?
Understand this? “Pions are bosons with zero spin and are composed of first-generation quarks.
Me neither.
My wife says, “I don’t need to.”
What about our children and grandchildren?
Fractal geometry maps life functions. The military is developing masers as high energy weapons. Pions are sub-atomic particles essential to the quantum physics that drives innovations in diagnostic instrumentation, bio-medicine, power transmission, and more.
Unless enough Americans from future generations can understand and grapple with fractals, masers, pions, and such, we will lose the scientific and technological edge that has propelled our economy and military might.
Unfortunately, our students fall behind year after year in world standings for math and science. In 2000 among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 18th in math and 14th in science on the Program for International Student Assessment. In 2009, they ranked 25th and 18th respectively. And, these rankings do not include students from non-OECD nations China, Singapore, Liechtenstein, and Latvia, who also scored higher than U.S. students. Lithuania students outscored our students in science.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said this “puts our country’s long term economic prosperity absolutely at risk.”
What has the U.S. done to offset this growing disadvantage?
We issue H-1B visas to bring smart foreign students to America, particularly to our major research universities and high-tech industries. The duration of stay is three years, extendable to six. Some become U.S. citizens. Others soak up U.S. innovations and technology and take them back to their home countries to make them more competitive.
The other tactic used by the U.S. has been to try and improve STEM education in public schools, obviously with limited success. STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Today, there are STEM Report Cards for each state published by the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America. As you might expect for a state whose math scores rank at the bottom, Mississippi’s STEM Report Card shows our students scoring below the U.S. average.
It also projects Mississippi will need STEM competent workers to fill 46,000 new jobs by 2018, a need drawing attention from Blueprint Mississippi.
What to do?
The Mississippi Legislature only makes charter schools available as last resorts for troubled school districts. How about authorizing them for STEM education? They could be operated locally by school districts or regionally by community colleges. That’s a pion the sky notion that could work.
Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.