Last week the Military Reporters & Editors Association, an organization that I am a board member of, held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. Some of the top combat reporters working today attended to hear Pentagon, defense industry, and nonprofit folks speak about the issues affecting military and veterans today. We were pleased to have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff speak in his first official press conference with military reporters. He made some interesting remarks about having forward deployed troops in Australia, and that the U.S. must continue to stay engaged diplomatically and, if required, militarily around the world. We could not become a “Fortress America.” But some of the panelists who spoke earlier in the year, I thought discussed more telling issues we, as a country, need to address.
One particular panel, Tech Talk, included the military’s top scientists who laid out new and what’s coming in the world of technology, as well as how budget talks could affect military research and development. The panelists were the Army’s chief scientist, Dr. Scott Fish; Air Force chief scientist, Dr. Mark Maybury; executive director of the Office of Naval Research Dr. Walter F. Jones, and Todd Harrison, senior Fellow for Defense Budget Studies. While they spoke about the advances being made in road-side bomb detection (top secret, but already in the field), and sensors built into combat helmets and beefing up vehicles to withstand IEDs, I think the most important thing that was said was their collective concern that the U.S. was not producing enough scientists and engineers—read brain power—to keep America’s military/civilian institutions at the cutting edge of science and technology.
Along with covering the military beat, I’ve also covered the education beat for almost the same amount of time. For me the quality of education is closely associated with the quality of those who join the armed forces. Since the mid-1990s I’ve worked to raise the concern at education conferences and writings that we have fallen behind in graduating computer/electrical engineers to a point we have to bring them into our country on special visas “by the truckload,” a Silicon Valley administrator from Alta Vista (back in the day) told me. The confirmation by the panelists that it has now ratcheted up to the national security level is disconcerting.
The decline in teaching our children in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — is frightening. Just look at the facts: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a more level comparison from country to country, U.S. eighth-graders science scores ranked 11th against many Asian countries and Russia. It goes downhill by the time high school graduation arrives with a rank of 25 against 34 other nations. Chinese students have an 89 percent college admission rate, higher than America’s 70 percent. Narrowing the focus on science and engineering:
It’s difficult to get verifiable numbers from China, but I would suspect that they are closer to India’s than ours.
Additionally, we face 280,000 baby boomer math and science teachers retiring by 2015, and do not have the college graduates to replace them,. While I am one to favor the arts and humanities be taught in schools, I also know the vital importance of STEM. As there was a call by President John F. Kennedy that inspired those baby boomers, there must be a national plan of action to attract the best STEM graduates into teaching and, raise the bar on math and science to ensure our next generation innovators can keep the nation competitive and bolster our national security.