We're counting on math and science

12th March 2010 at 00:00

We live in a world of unprecedented perils, but also unparalleled potential. The sources of energy that power our economy are also endangering our planet. We confront threats to our security that seek to exploit the very openness that is essential to our prosperity. And we face challenges in a global marketplace that links the trader to Wall Street to the homeowner on Main Street, to the office worker in America to the factory worker in China - an economy in which we all share in opportunity but we also share, unfortunately, in crisis.

The key to meeting these challenges - to improving our health and well- being, to harnessing clean energy, to protecting our security and to succeeding in the global economy - will be reaffirming and strengthening America's role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation.

That leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in those fields that hold the promise of producing future innovations and innovators. And that's why education in math and science is so important.

Now the hard truth is that for decades we've been losing ground. One assessment shows American 15-year-olds now rank 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers around the world. And this isn't news. We've seen worrying statistics like this for years. As a nation, we've let our children down.

That's why I'm committed to moving our country from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade. To meet this goal, the Recovery Act included the largest investment in education in history, while preventing hundreds of thousands of educators from being fired because of state budget shortfalls. We've launched a $4 billion Race to the Top fund, one of the largest investments in education reform in history.

Through the Race to the Top, states won't just be receiving funding: they'll have to compete for funding. And in this competition, producing the most innovative programmes in math and science will be an advantage.

Back in April, at the National Academy of Sciences, I issued a challenge: to encourage folks to think of new and creative ways of engaging young people in science and engineering. And the nationwide Educate to Innovate campaign will help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade. We've got leaders from private companies and universities, foundations and non- profits, and organisations representing millions of scientists, engineers, and teachers from across America.

The initial commitment of the private sector to this campaign is more than $260 million - and we only expect the campaign to grow. Sesame Street has begun a two-year initiative to teach young kids about math and science. And Discovery Communications is going to deliver interactive science content to 60,000 schools reaching 35 million students.

We're going to have an annual science fair at the White House, with the winners of national competitions in science and technology. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we're going to lead by example. We're going to show young people how cool science can be.

And I want to mention the importance not only of students but also of parents. I was in Asia for a week, and I was having lunch with the President of South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak. I asked him: what are the biggest challenges in your education policy? He said his biggest challenge was that parents were too demanding; even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting on excellence in the schools.

And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they have got 25 million people in this one city. He said they don't have problems recruiting teachers, because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions.

That gives you a sense of what's happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about. That's what we're going to be about again.

The importance of science and math is about more than producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. It's also about the ability to understand our world: to harness and train that human capacity to solve problems and think critically. It's a set of skills that informs the decisions we make throughout our lives, in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are, at root, scientific problems.

And it's about the power of science not only to unlock new discoveries, but to unlock in the minds of our young people a sense of promise, a sense that with some hard work - with effort - they have the potential to achieve extraordinary things.

This nation was forged by bold men and women who dared to invent something new or improve something old - who took big chances on big ideas, who believed that in America all things are possible. That's our history. And, if we remain fixed on the work ahead, if we build on the progress we've made today, this is going to be our legacy as well.

Barack Obama is President of the United States. This is an extract from a recent speech at the White House.

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