We may have won the space race, but we’re losing the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) challenge.
On July 20, 1969, like so many other American children, I stared at the television set in my living room in absolute wonder. When Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of Apollo 11 and announced “one giant leap for mankind,” it was a galvanizing moment for America, and for me.
Twenty-six years later, I took my first steps in space, becoming the first African-American to do so.
Rewind to 1961, when President John F. Kennedy pushed America toward the moon. He stood before Congress and said: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
One year later, we put a man in orbit, astronaut John Glenn, and this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of his historic venture into space.
Without Kennedy’s challenge, Glenn would not have set in motion the actions that led to Armstrong’s first step on the moon before the end of the decade. And without Washington leadership now, America will fail to meet the challenge of creating the 400,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and math we need each year to be competitive.
Just as President Kennedy stumped the country generating support for the mission, it’s time for citizens of the United States to join the call for this new national mission before we lose another generation of explorers and innovators.
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin couldn’t have looked back on the earth from Tranquility Base and imagined the situation in which America finds itself today. Report after report shows our students are dismally lagging their foreign counterparts in math and science.
At our current graduation rate in postsecondary degrees, we aren’t even close to reaching the goal of doubling the number of new STEM graduates every year.
The National Math and Science Initiative reports about two-thirds of high school physical science students have teachers who did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach it.
Our new scientists and engineers will be needed not only to help us return to the moon and go to Mars and beyond, but also to help find creative ways to address our nation’s current challenges, such as climate change, healthcare, terrorism and security, and famine.
Silence was something astronauts expected when we were on the moon, but if we plan to tackle an education mission with any momentum, it won’t work now.
Parents need to advocate for more instruction time and less memorization. School districts need to join the mission by reinvigorating course work and materials to make science and math fun and relevant to engage today’s students. Teachers need to use their considerable power to push for a national commitment to produce and pay more top-caliber teachers in math and the sciences.
America’s corporations must do more to sponsor programs and scholarships for students who have the math and science skills to succeed in college, but not the money to get there. And, science institutions, such as NASA, have a role to play beyond building rockets and training astronauts and have the ability and mission to lead the STEM priority.
When I was growing up, almost every kid wanted to be an astronaut. Today, they want to be athletes and rock stars. It’s time to change the paradigm and give a voice to our next generation of STEM rock stars.