When I was a teenager I remember my parents calling me out of my bedroom in the evening and politely demanding that I tune into the Carl Sagan television program Cosmos with them when it aired on PBS from time to time.
It’s not that I minded hanging out with my parents, I just recall those sessions of Cosmos being tedious television viewing to say the least as Sagan expounded on the universe in his unique, dramatic style. I also recall learning what a googleplex was from those sessions before the Googleplex corporate headquarters of Internet giant Google ever existed.
Of course, you often don’t recognize what your parents are teaching when it is occurring, and I remember mentally comparing the Cosmos sessions at the time to eating broccoli. Now with children of my own, I understand that my parents were trying to further spark my interest in learning more about science.
Learning about science is something that should interest all of us in America. After all, we didn’t just inherit our technological and economic position of dominance in the world — we earned it.
America wasn’t the leading global innovator coming out of World War II. However, previous generations of Americans made conscious investments in technical education — fueled by Westinghouse’s science contests in the ’40s, the race for space in the ’50s and other efforts — that laid the groundwork for the country’s technology and economic prosperity in future years.
We’re still leaders on the global technology scene, but the competition from other countries is catching up and in some cases surpassing us. Talented foreign national students pursuing advanced technical degrees in the U.S. used to remain and work here after graduation. Their contributions became part of our economy. Now many of those graduates are returning home to innovate in their own nations.
It’s also not new news that our education system is being outperformed by other countries, and America as a nation is not producing enough qualified technical graduates. Experts report that American students rank 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed nations and 25th out of 30 in math literacy.
The good news is that educators, policy makers, technology companies and communities all recognize the importance of this issue and what it means to the future of our country. Our public relations firm works with many technology companies whose primary philanthropic push is to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education with today’s youth. The goal is to spark a passion in science to fuel next-generation engineers in our country.
Perhaps no recent event was more promotional for this endeavor than the transport of the actual Space Shuttle Endeavour from its NASA home in Florida to its retirement home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The Endeavour’s voyage over the past several weeks has captivated audiences, young and old, science buffs and average consumers alike. Los Angeles officials even claim the shuttle’s transport galvanized civic pride in the city like no event in recent memory.
Locally, friends left their office buildings and looked at windows at the time the Endeavour shuttle transport plane fly threw the Sacramento region on its way to Los Angeles. Adults shared photos of the shuttle transport via Facebook and Twitter like kids giddy from a classroom science experiment. The story excited our family as well.
And make no mistake, science can be exciting and fun. Our sons, who have fortunately shown a natural curiosity and interest in science and math, have enjoyed a variety of local science education activities ranging from Camp Invention to the Junior Lego League — the precursor to FIRST Robotics. What’s not fortunate is that our youngest son only receives science instruction two days a week in his fourth grade El Dorado Hills class.
Whether the boys choose to pursue a formal technical education or not, we feel we have a responsibility, like my parents did with me, to provide them with enough exposure to hopefully spark a passion for science and math education.
Likewise, we should feel a responsibility as citizens to support STEM education and the efforts of programs like the California STEM Learning Network. As someone who works in the technology industry, I have a daily opportunity to see firsthand how innovation benefits our society, our job base and our economy. For these reasons, we need to invest in and nurture that ecosystem for the benefits of future generations—just as previous generations did before us.
Dan Francisco is an El Dorado Hills-based public relations consultant to the high-tech industry.