A Journalist's Archive

What This Country Needs: Less American Idols and More American Scientists
By Kathy Hare

          Wanting to be famous seems to be an epidemic in this country.  We can't escape the newscasts about Anna Nicole Smith or Britney Spears.  Teenagers are pulling all kinds of stupid stunts so their videos will make it big on You-Tube, and an endless stream of young adults with less musical talent than a magpie cling to the hope of becoming the next American Idol.

          But to stay competitive in this world, to develop the next big breakthrough in science and technology, this country needs less American Idols and more students capable of passing higher-level math and science courses. 

          Americans have always been known for their ingenuity - the cerebral spark that created the technologically advanced world we live in today.  Franklin, Bell, Edison, Tesla, Einstein, the Wright Brothers, Ford, Salk, Jarvik, and Gates - the list goes on.  These people used their brains to turn ideas into products, and it would be hard to imagine our world bereft of their genius. 

          Today millions of well-educated Americans produce medical, scientific, and technological miracles.  But the world they created is in danger of becoming extinct, because mindless fame has replaced knowledge as the holy grail of American culture.

          In 1993, John Saxon reported in an article entitled "The Coming Disaster in Science Education in America," that high school courses designed to prepare students for college calculus, physics, chemistry, and engineering, were being replaced with watered-down courses.  Students were also being allowed to use calculators and computers to do math computations in place of the old pencil-and-paper math drills to ensure students really understood advanced math instead of just knowing which buttons to push.

          A 2003 study by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) clearly demonstrates the result of those course changes.  American students now score dismally low in science and math, falling behind students in at least 27 other less developed countries.  So our students may be able to download I-tunes, but they probably won't be able to design the next generation of computers.

          Whose responsibility is it to educate the next generation?  Well, don't expect any help from the mass media making billions off the idiotic entertainment already out there.    So the responsibility falls squarely on parents, teachers, and political leaders.

          Educating children is not an impossible task if parents start early.  Read to your children.  Surround them with books covering all sorts of subjects including: science, history, literature, and biographies of truly great people.

          Children love to learn about the world around them, and Colorado is a perfect environment to teach children about earth sciences.  Most children are fascinated by rocks, fossils, bugs and plants.  Parents can spark a child's interest in geology, geography, and environmental science by taking them on hikes as soon as they can walk.  As they get older, buying a copy of "The Roadside Geology of Colorado," will help to keep them interested in these subjects.  A book on wildflowers combined with a few field trips may create a botanist.

          Buy them an inexpensive microscope to look at pond water and bugs, and they are on the road to understanding biology.  Spend some time explaining different cloud formations to them, and they might become a meteorologist.  Get a telescope and gaze at the moon and stars so they can understand we are part of a much larger universe.

           As children begin school, parents should get to know their child's teachers and work with the school district to ensure children are getting the skills they need to succeed.   The 2003 PISA study shows that American 4th graders have high math scores, but somewhere between 4th and 8th grade the system, or our culture, fails them.

          While there are many dedicated teachers in this country, some college curriculums for teachers have less stringent requirements than other college programs.  This is especially true in the field of math and science.  Taxpayers should call upon state legislators to change this situation. 

          However, when a teacher has an education equal to that of those in the private sector, taxpayers must also be willing to compensate them with a salary that is competitive with private industry.  After all, dedication only goes so far - it doesn't put food on the table or keep qualified teachers in a classroom when they can earn thousands more in the business world.

          Next, our entire society needs to start emphasizing the need for higher education.  By high school many students are more interested in being popular than being educated.  And I'm sure most 9th grade algebra teachers have heard this statement from students, "I'm never going to use algebra once I'm out of this class."

           So parents and teachers need to show teenagers the number of career opportunities they will be missing out on without math.  Perhaps high schools should seek volunteers from math and science professions to visit high schools at least once a month.

          Intel has a nationwide program that exposes students to people involved in computer careers.  Participating Falcon D-49 students benefit from having engineers in the classroom on a regular basis.  Students get to experience the actual work environment with visits to Intel, and the company also provides scholarships.  Other companies should be encouraged, via tax breaks and other incentives, to do the same. After all, students won't be able to design a space shuttle, computer game, or find a cure for cancer without higher-level math skills.

          Posters should also be plastered around schools showing the difference in pay between a college graduate and someone with only a high school education.  And other posters could show the odds of becoming an engineer versus the odds of becoming an NFL football player or an American idol.

          Turning the tide on the "dumbing down" of America will not be easy.  But it can be done if American society as a whole starts placing more emphasis on the value of education - instead of fame.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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