Conference on World Affairs 2010: Saving the Nation With Math and Science

Tuesday 2:00 Panel, East Ballroom UMC, CU-Boulder
Panelists: Ruth Oratz, Kirsten Sanford (@drkiki), and Erika B. Wagner

(All of the below is paraphrased to the best of my ability, and not necessarily a transcription!)

Dr. Kiki: There is a myth that science is on the way out in this country, that somehow as a nation we've fallen way behind. While there is always room to improve, it's good to focus on what is right with science in the US. Our colleges and universities hold 17 of the top 20 positions for science research worldwide, and people from all over the world come here to study. The public is thankful for science and believes it has done them more good than harm. However, we aren't always very good at communicating what's good and right about science, and that limits both participation and advancement.

Erika B. Wagner: Science has helped our society in countless ways, yet our youth don't rank highly on international assessments and our science workforce, such as our NASA engineers, are approaching retirement with fewer young engineers to replace them. Can we use STEM education to excite the public? We must recognize the frontiers that have been opened by our current levels of math and science, and energize ourselves around new challenges that we have only begun to realize.

Ruth Oratz: I'm thinking literally about using math and science to save us from poor health and diseases such as cancer. Cancer rates worldwide are escalating rapidly, and 30 years of research have helped us better understand cancer and develop new treatments. What we're seeing now is a cooperation of doctors, engineers, mathematicians and statisticians, and other scientists who are unified in their fight against cancer. Unfortunately, the resources to do our best research aren't there. The National Cancer Institute spends a large part of their budget on sustaining older projects, leaving less for new cutting-edge research.

Erika B. Wagner: We need people to take a new perspective on science education. When I used to come home from school, my mother didn't ask me, "Did you learn anything new today?" Instead, she'd ask, "Did you ask any good questions today?" Our kids need to feel empowered to ask good questions.

Q: My question is about motivation. I'm old enough to remember Sputnik, and my friends and I went from wanting to be Buddy Holly at the beginning of the week to wanting to be engineers by the end of the week. What can ignite that passion for science to a new generation?
A: Kiki: I think the internet is broadening people's horizons to science in interactive ways that is generating motivation to study science.
A: Oratz: Social networks of participants is helping science in significant ways, even if the participants are participating in passive ways. People want to help -- even if they aren't scientists.

Q: Do you think having people with math and science degrees, even advanced degrees, is important to teaching math and science and motivate learning in their students?
A: Kiki: Not for the motivation part, but the knowledge is important. We have to change the perception of what it means to be a scientist, that it's more than just working in a lab. Perhaps we could consider lowering the bar to get more people into being science and math teachers, but structure requirements so they develop their expertise over the course of their career.

Q: How do we get science into the public narrative, and how do we restructure our funding to better focus on science?
A: Oratz: Look at what we're up against - we have countless TV channels dedicated to entertainment, but very few Discovery networks. Also, there are still some very "ivory tower" bureaucracies that funnel money to non-progressive efforts and institutions.
A: Kiki: There are some efforts, such as the show "The Big Bang Thoery" and efforts to make science fiction more scientifically accurate. Still, we need a better narrative.

Q: In math and science postsecondary ed, how many students are American vs. how many come from other countries?
A: Kiki: I'm not aware of the numbers, but we have the best institutions in the world, so we attract the best students from around the world. Some of those students stay, some don't, and some can't.
A: Wagner: We need some reform of our work visa policies to help top talent stay in the country.

Summary: The Q&A continued with numerous questions about improving math and science education. Some were anecdotal about particular course requirements or tests in particular schools or districts, but that's the dialogue you expect in open forums like the Conference on World Affairs. Still, there were plenty of good questions and, as can be expected, it's hard to come up with 2-minute answers that will solve our educational problems in math and science. I appreciate Ruth Oratz's forthrightness about money being an issue, and I believe she successfully argued it's targeted funding we need, not just more dollars spread thin across our educational and research systems.