By MARSHA MERCER
More than half a century ago, Americans looked up in shock as Sputnik rolled across the heavens.
The Soviets beat us into space in October 1957, and they brought the insult home weeks later by sending a mutt named Laika on Sputnik 2.
Americans were, in the words of Elvis Presley’s hit single that year, “All Shook Up.”
The Soviet satellite was a potent symbol that rallied Americans and gave us a shared purpose. We focused education on science and math, set our sights on the moon and roared into the space age.
Today, the Soviet Union is no more, and President Obama is steering away from space exploration. The United States risks falling behind China and other Asian nations in a science race.
The president has promised to double funding for the National Science Foundation during his term. His budget for fiscal 2011 proposes to end the moon- and Mars-bound Constellation rocket program. His budget shifts research priorities – redirecting some R&D money from military to civilian projects.
Explaining the new race for scientific and technological supremacy, Obama uses a story about his lunch last year with the president of South Korea.
Obama asked President Lee Myung-bak his biggest challenge in education. “And he said, ‘my biggest issue, my toughest fight, is that Korean parents are too demanding. They want their kids to learn English in first grade, and so I’ve had to ship in a whole bunch of foreign-speaking teachers to meet the demand,” Obama told governors at the White House this week.
Korean parents want their children learning math, science, foreign languages – everything -- as soon as possible, Obama said.
“So that’s what we’re up against. That’s what’s at stake. Nothing less than our primacy in the world.”
American eighth graders have sunk to 9th in the world in math and 11th in science. Obama has called for new reading and math standards, noting that under No Child Left Behind, some schools dropped math standards.
Telling the Korea story last December, he said, “Their kids aren’t spending a whole bunch of time playing video games or watching TV. They’re out there -- they’re working. They’re working in math, they’re working in science, they’re working in foreign languages. They are preparing themselves to compete.”
A new report by the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation, lays out the science race in facts and figures.
“Science and Engineering Indicators 2010” compares worldwide research and development spending, trends in education and workforce development and concludes that U.S. dominance in science and engineering has eroded significantly in recent years because of a science boom in Asia, particularly China.
The NSF report comes out every two years and is used to shape federal policy. Still, it’s easy to be blasé about reports. We’ve heard for decades that the United States is losing its technological edge, that our educational system is broken, that kids need to work harder and study more.
In the 1980s, the threat was the economic powerhouse of Japan, whose auto companies were eating Detroit’s lunch. Some people suggested it might take something dramatic, like Toyota’s launching a car into space, to rally support for policy changes.
What’s changed is that the world has grown smaller and nations more connected. China holds much of the U.S. debt. At the same time, China is aggressively improving the quality and availability of its education, producing more graduates in engineering and the sciences, publishing more academic research papers and boosting funds for research and development, according to the Indicators report.
Staying competitive will require more than a shift in federal funding and another new education policy. American children may need to put down their video games.
“If our kids are spending all their time playing video games, and somebody else’s kids are getting the math and science skills to invent video games, we’re not going to be No. 1,” Obama said at a town hall meeting in Nevada earlier this month. “It’s as simple as that.”
In the 20th Century, Sputnik symbolized the space race. In the 21st, video games symbolize the science race.
The question is: Will we be the country that plays video games -- or invents them?
(c)2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.