Op-Ed …The Race Is Still On, but the Competitors Have Changed

By Abe Khan
October 26, 2007
Math and science skills must be nurtured in our children from an early age in order to make a real difference in our future.

          Though most people probably didn’t realize it, Thursday, October 4, marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite successfully launched into space. When Soviet officials first announced this accomplishment in 1957, the perception here in the United States was largely one of great apprehension and frustration. The federal government reacted quickly by plowing funding into research and improving education in the sciences.

In January of the following year, Explorer 1, a U.S. satellite, was launched. That year, 1958, was a significant one for science in America, as we tried to get our foot in the door of space research. NASA was born, and the space race was on. The goal was clear: Be the first to successfully launch a man into space. The Soviets won that round too:  In April 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. American Astronaut Alan Sheppard followed months later.

Within weeks of Sheppard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy announced a truly ambitious goal: A lunar landing before the decade was out. Many suggest that it was the first goal, since the creation of the atomic bomb, on which so many engineering and scientific minds came together. Federal funding for scientific education increased dramatically as it became obvious that future generations would have to keep this race with the Soviet Union going. In 1969, the U.S. had its first win: Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Many programs later, in early April 1984, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, marking the point at which space travel became just another area of expertise that people left to government; slightly forgotten about by the rest of the country. Since then, the importance to Americans of education in the sciences has slowly faded. It seemed that once we didn’t have an enemy or some sort of defining goal anymore to motivate us, we slowed down.

In comparison with other developed countries, children in America have fallen behind in math and sciences. This correlates to post-graduate employment as well; many companies are outsourcing engineering jobs, by either setting up engineering and research departments overseas, or bringing people here via work visas.

We are the country with the most Nobel Laureates, leading with 270, Great Britain was second with 101. The average education in the U.S. just doesn’t reflect that. Although we may work harder and make more money than the rest of the world, we are falling behind in education and failing our children.  At a time when engineering minds are desperately needed to address the pressing issues of global climate change, Mars exploration and renewable energy resources, American math and science education has fallen to 15th place among the 41 nations tested by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2007.

          Like many things in our country, the issue has been turned into a matter of economics. Engineering is often the pursuit of efficiency. That focus often clashes with the American model of consumption. We live in a society not worried about the problems of the future, but occupied with the trends of today. With a nuclear Iran over the horizon, and China launching anti-satellite missiles into space, what will it take to change our national apathy over education in all areas for our kids?

          Math and science skills must be nurtured in our children from an early age in order to make a real difference in our future. It has become obvious to other nations what they need to do to set themselves up for the next century. They are impatient watching our dominance in the world from the sidelines and truly believe that they can surpass us, economically, politically, technologically, and most chillingly, militarily. If nationalism in the 50’s and 60’s, and the fear of a nuclear threat in the 70’s and 80’s could produce such innovation in engineering in the U.S., then why can’t these important issues of today do the same?

Abe Khan is a senior at Horace Greeley, president of its “Political Action Club,” and a youth member of Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

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