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Iowans should lead renaissance in math and science

Gregory Geoffroy • January 7, 2008

Fifty years ago, the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union turned on our nation's competitive juices and spurred a resurgence of interest in the study of mathematics and science.

Scientists were heroes in movies and in real life, and young people believed it was cool to be a scientist. They went to college in record numbers to become astrophysicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers and other scientists. The result was a half-century of technological advancement and progress the likes of which the world had never seen, with the United States as the clear leader.
But in the ensuing years our nation has lost much of its "fire" for the study of mathematics, science and related technical fields. Far fewer young Americans now pursue careers in science and engineering, and we are in serious danger of losing our competitive edge in innovation and our position as the world's technology leader.

But most significantly, this decline in interest in science and mathematics comes at a time when there are so many exciting opportunities to apply science and technology to help solve the world's most important problems. Many of the world's most pressing challenges require solutions based on science and technology - from stemming global climate change and addressing the problems that come with it, to meeting the world's growing needs for water, food and energy, to sustaining our environment and natural resources, to preparing for new health threats, including pandemics.
Science and math also give us the means to create tremendous economic opportunity through solutions to these and other challenges. The career opportunities for young people interested in science and technology are enormous, and the opportunities to impact the world are huge.

Technological advancement and discovery begin with a solid foundation in mathematics and science education, because we must first understand our physical environment and natural systems before we can attempt change. It's time to rekindle our national "fire" for math and science.
We don't have Sputnik as a catalyst, but we do have global warming. The Soviet Union is no longer an imminent threat to national security, but our increasing dependence on imported oil is. The goal of putting people on the moon has been met, but the goal of providing adequate, sustainable food and energy to all the Earth's people has not.

With these as our goals, we need to create a new renaissance in math and science, and make it both a national and state priority. We need many more fresh young minds to lead us in meeting the challenges we face. We need to encourage our young people to pursue careers in math and science. We must improve and expand the math and science curricula in our local schools so our young people can compete effectively with people from other nations.
And absolutely critical to this process are teachers - talented, inspirational math and science teachers. Just as they did a half-century ago, effective teachers can motivate a new generation to pursue exciting careers in math, science, engineering and science and technology policy, and lead the way in meeting the challenges that lie ahead.

Here in Iowa, we've made an excellent start with the new Iowa Model Core Curriculum for Iowa's K-12 schools, with its strong emphasis on literacy, math and science. If adopted uniformly, this curriculum would ensure that all Iowa students have access to a rigorous and relevant curriculum to prepare them for success in post-secondary education and the emerging global economy.
I urge local districts to adopt this curriculum, and I urge our elected leaders to make it mandatory. I also urge support for the Regents Math and Science Education Collaborative initiative, designed to increase the number of math and science teachers in Iowa schools.

Math and science are the wellspring from which technological progress flows. A strong underpinning in math and science is the key to keeping our nation at the forefront of technological advancement and progress, providing a better life for all people and creating new opportunities for our young people to be successful.
It starts - as it always has - with young people and the teachers who inspire them. And the renaissance can begin right here in Iowa.

GREGORY L. GEOFFROY is president of Iowa State University.