1 in 7 students are taught creationism in school

Photo by latvian on Flickr

A recent survey of high school biology teachers shows the majority don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students.  Fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance, while the majority hedge on the topic in order to avoid potential conflict.  A full 13% openly teach creationism.

President Obama’s “Sputnik moment” call to inspire a new generation of science students stands in stark contrast to the stifled educations being offered to most of today’s kids.  The argument is often that teaching creationism as science might stunt a student’s biology career, but it shouldn’t prevent producing scads of software engineers and physicists.  But that’s sophistry.  A lot of the innovation space with the rapidly aging populace is in medicine and biology, so there is a need for people who really understand the life sciences.  But moreover, when a child’s early exposure to science of any flavor is basically that a bunch of whackos in lab coats have this nutty idea, but really the way the world works is something else, they learn an inherent distrust of science in general.  Why would a student want to pursue a career using the same fundamental techniques that yielded such “flawed theories” as evolution?  It requires a pretty significant cognitive dissonance to believe that biology, geology, anthropology, cosmology, and several other sciences are fundamentally wrong, but quantum physics is right on the money.

The prevalence of creationism in schools does matter.  Children require inspiration to pursue careers in science and technology. And teachers, especially science teachers, who don’t have enthusiasm for the field or reject the discipline altogether are certainly not being inspirational.

It would be easy but overly simplistic to dismiss this as just a problem in our schools.  The reality is that teachers are human.  They reflect the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the society as a whole.  Considering that repeated studies have shown about 45% of the population in general believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, science teachers are already well outside the mainstream.  The answers here don’t lie in fixing the schools as much as in fixing society.  Children are not often motivated toward goals their parents openly reject.  When almost half of parents reject science as hooey, it’s not surprising that kids are not flocking to the field.

Industry doesn’t help here either.  While demand for science and tech jobs has picked up a bit, the outsourcing of entry level positions to overseas markets continues to make it challenging for average students to find work after college.  If the U.S. is to grow the next generation of talent, we have to be willing to plant the seeds domestically by hiring fresh grads.

In addition, society doesn’t treat science as credible, cool, or aspirational.  The CSI and Mythbusters television shows have helped make science seem a bit more interesting and mainstream.  But science and tech careers are still things perceived to be pursued largely by those geeky kids who seems inexorably destined for lab coats from birth.  Yet that minority of kids will not be sufficient to fuel a new Apollo program.

If this is truly a Sputnik moment, we need to inspire a big chunk of the “normal” kids to get their geek on.  Teachers are a part of that. Government is a part of that. But unless society as a whole embraces it, it will not succeed.

Our generation’s Sputnik moment finds few science students ready to answer the call

Sputnik means nothing if we don't go all Apollo on it

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night reminded Americans that our future depends on research and innovation.  The same day that results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress were released showing that only 21% of graduating high school seniors ranked proficient in science.  Moreover, only 1% ranked at the advanced level, deemed appropriate to pursue science at the college level.  Fourth and eighth graders were also evaluated, and the results were similarly disappointing.

Obama made repeated appeals in his State of the Union speech to the need for a workforce skilled in science and technology:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean-energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.

We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are noble and vital aspirations. Yet the current state of our educational pipeline indicates we may be a decade or more away away from having students prepared to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based careers.  Only 1% of our graduates are prepared to go on to study in scientific fields in college.  Fixing that is not merely a matter of funding or focus.  Even with the retooling of educational programs and an Apollo-level political will, it will take years and years to reeducate the current generation of students, or a decade to refill the educational pipeline with students who are properly prepared.

Achieving the economic goals outlined by President Obama are very much contingent on becoming a scientifically competent society.  As he said, “The world has changed.”  The days of toiling on an assembly line are gone.  Jobs that will allow our children to achieve the American dream require STEM skills and knowledge, and the foundation for that has to be laid in our schools.

This is not a path we are on.  And the results of our national school report card indicate it’s also not a path we are remotely prepared to travel.  This leaves us in grave danger of having our Sputnik moment sputter out and stall unless we unite behind this cause as one nation with one purpose, and hold that course for a generation.  Surely, this is a challenge worthy of the American spirit.

100% renewable energy achievable by 2030

Offshore wind turbine (Photo by Phil Hollman)

The journal Energy Policy has produced a study claiming that by 2030 the entire world could be operating on a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, and wave power.  While achieving this would require a massive retooling of the world’s energy infrastructure, it is all doable with current technology and at a affordable cost.  The study’s authors, Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson note that all that would be required is the political will to make this happen.

The plan calls for building of about four million 5 MW wind turbines, 1.7 billion 3 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems, and around 90,000 300 MW solar power plants.  These would be backed by geothermal and wave generation devices whose power output fluctuates less over the course of the days or seasons.  All the assumptions are based on using technology already in place at this scale somewhere today.

The execution of such a plan over the next two decades would require an “Apollo-level” commitment by successive administrations in the U.S. alone.  China and several European countries are already committed to massive green energy programs.  The global implications of such a shift in energy technology would benefit the climate as well as the economies and foreign policies of countries like the U.S. that have a huge dependence on foreign fossil fuels.

However, given the current depressed economy there is little appetite for infrastructure maintenance, much less the desire to rebuild anything.  It’s also unclear the current government could muster a new generational program given the level of corporate influence and the inherent polarization it operates under.  The long term benefits of such a program are enormous, but the short term investment will likely prove an insurmountable hurdle.

Still, it’s encouraging to know a fossil fuel free future is possible without new inventions.

State Dept. admits Wikileaks was embarrassing but not damaging

Julian Assange
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (photo by New Media Days on Flickr)

A Congressional official said publicly that the Wikileaks revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.   On condition of anonymity, Reuters was told that State Department officials have privately said to Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable.

“We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging,” said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.

Previously, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had said, “From our standpoint, there has been substantial damage. We believe that hundreds of people have been put at potential risk because their names have been compromised in the release of these cables.”  But it turns out those assertions were overblown in an effort to stoke the firestorm of backlash against Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, a claim Wikileaks defenders have been making for months.  Still, the U.S. government will continue to investigate whether criminal charges can be brought against Assange.  This admission by no means lets him off the hook.

This also does not mean the released information is inconsequential.  Damage assessments by the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community are still continuing.  Meanwhile, the current view of many officials that damage has been limited could change if WikiLeaks releases additional material from its trove of unpublished documents.

Independent analysis debunks false GOP claims about health reform

Obama's signature on the health care reform bill

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group with a reputation for producing materials that are balanced, authoritative, and accessible to non-specialists, has released a study of the claims central to the debate on repealing health reform that will reopen in the House this week. The short answer is that the CBO analysis is deemed accurate while Republican claims to the contrary are deemed inaccurate.

At issue is the pending bill to repeal “job killing” health care reform, a bill who’s very name contains an accusation.  Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a leading proponent of repeal, says “This is the most important thing we can do, jobs and the economy have to follow through, but we can’t fix this economy unless we first repeal Obama care.”  But is that true?

Much of the rhetoric surrounding this debate has been quite partisan.  Yet a surprising element in this round has been the claim by Speaker Boehner that the CBO analysis of the health care reform act’s financials was merely their “opinion,” and he implied that Democrats had forced CBO to produce misleading figures, saying that “CBO can only provide a score based on the assumptions that were given to them.”  On that count, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says:

  • In fact, over several decades, the House and Senate Budget Committees, along with presidential administrations of both parties, have developed procedures that CBO uses to prepare cost estimates.  In estimating the cost of health reform or its repeal, as with any estimate, CBO uses these longstanding, bipartisan procedures — not assumptions specified by the sponsor of the legislation.  Thus, Speaker Boehner’s charge is flatly incorrect.
  • Up until now, congressional leaders of both parties have acknowledged CBO’s professionalism and recognized its critical role as a neutral arbiter in budget matters.  They have accepted CBO’s cost estimates, even when those estimates have proved inconvenient for their side.  This wholesale attack on, and rejection of, a CBO estimate for a major piece of legislation by the leadership of the House or Senate is unprecedented.

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”  A recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll determined that 83% of the public say it’s extremely or very important for House Republicans to pass legislation that both parties can agree on.  Further, 70% of Democrats say the president should work to pass legislation Democrats and Republicans can agree on, even if it’s not what most Democrats want.

The public wants the government to cooperate together.  But this cannot happen if there is not at least agreement on the basic data related to an issue.  Debate the implications. Debate the ideology. But stop wasting everyone’s time debating the facts.