Innovation Starts with Math and Science Education

By Gene Quinn
October 21, 2009

When it comes to talking with their kids, parents say the topics of math and science are harder to discuss than drug abuse, according to a survey of 561 adults who have children ages 5 to 18. The survey was conducted online between Sept. 23 and 28, 2009 by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates on behalf of Intel Corporation, and is reported to have a margin of error of +/- 4.14 percent. The survey found that although more than 50 percent of parents rank math or science as the subjects most critical to their children’s future success, they report discomfort talking to their children about these subjects. In fact, nearly a quarter of parents who admit to being less involved in their child’s math and science education than they would like say that a key barrier is their own lack of understanding of these subjects. On top of this, last week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that fewer than 40% of fourth-graders and eighth-graders in the United States are proficient in math.

Over the past six months or so I have continued to write about how an appropriate innovation strategy is necessary to help pull the U.S. out of this recession and plant the seeds for economic growth moving forward. See, for example Innovation Will Lead Recovery, Patent Stimulus and Change in Patent Office Philosophy.  While that is certainly true, and while it is also true that manufacturing jobs continue to dwindle and high-tech jobs are the future for American workers, it is extremely disheartening to know that such fundamentally important subjects as math and science present such enormous difficulty to an overwhelming number of our children, and many parents are ill-equipped to assist their children. What is going to become of the next generation who will not be able to gain employment in a high-tech economy when they struggle with basic math? It seems that David Kappos has the Patent Office heading in the right direction (thankfully) and now the attention of our leaders needs to turn toward educating American children to thrive in a high-tech economy that requires not only fundamental understanding of math and science, but which will demand a comprehensive grasp of math, science and computers in order to achieve success and even modest levels of job security.

“The link between math and science education and American innovation and competitiveness is more apparent than ever,” said Shelly Esque, vice president of Intel’s Corporate Affairs Group. “Our survey points to a difficult reality for our nation’s parents: While they may recognize the importance of math and science, they are unable to engage with their children around these subjects due to limited understanding of the topics and scarcity of resources to help. We need to help parents help their kids make the best choices, including taking math and science courses so they are prepared to succeed.”

My personal view is that Ms. Esque is exactly correct, and while I am not a fan of governmental intervention and do believe that Thomas Jefferson got it right when he talked of the best government being the government that governs least, the role of government should be to help by fostering community resources in situations where individuals could not. This is, for example, the justification for local governments having a police force, fire department and emergency services. It is not practical for individuals to pay for such services themselves, but together we all need those services and it makes sense for a collective funding of such services. Similarly, having a public school system funded by taxpayers allows all children to be educated, alleviating the need for parents to home school. Having a school system that fails to meet the needs of parents and children is just a waste, does no one any benefit and sets up the next generation for failure. Throwing money at the problem obviously doesn’t work because in many locations large amounts of money are spent per pupil with dismal results. It is time for the government to realize that providing an education is meaningless and an unnecessary burden on taxpayers unless the education that is provided is adequate. It is impossible to make the case that our children obtain an adequate education when less than 40% are proficient in math.

Here are some more findings from the Intel survey:

  • American schools are falling far short of parents’ expectations, with nearly 9 in 10 parents saying they believe the U.S. lags behind other countries in math and science, even though 98% of parents say these subjects are critical to America’s future.
  • Parents clearly want to be part of the solution. 91% of parents believe parental involvement is crucial to their children’s academic success, with 89% saying that talking to their children about the importance of math and science in the real world would help improve their children’s performance and interest.
  • 53% of parents of teenagers admit that they have trouble helping their children with math and science homework. Parents of high school students are also more likely than parents of younger kids to express disappointment in their own ability to help their child with these subjects.
  • 23% who admit to being less involved in their child’s math and science education than they would like say their own lack of knowledge in these subjects is a key barrier.
  • 26% of parents who are less involved than they would like wish there was a one-stop shop with materials to refresh their existing, but unused math and science knowledge so they can better help their kids.

This last statement above hits home to me personally.  As an electrical engineer I have taken so many math courses over the years that I almost can’t keep them all straight in my head any more.  Having been an attorney for over 14 years and a patent attorney for over 11 years, there is very little I do in my daily life that forces me to use specific math skills I have acquired over the years.  When my son comes home with a math question I help him and show him what needs to be done, which usually is easy enough, but as he progresses through school and gets into trigonometry I am sure I will need to brush up on certain things in order to refresh my recollection before I can help him.  That being the case I can only imagine what it must be like for a parent who may be math-phobic to be confronted with helping their children.

I think government works best when it helps people help themselves rather than giving handouts.  If there really are 26% of parents who would like a one-stop shop to help, then wouldn’t it be a worthwhile expenditure of funds for the government to help create such a resource?  The nice thing about math is it never changes.  There is no “new math” really.  1+1=2 and it will always equal 2.  Rather than having an entire bureaucracy devoted to Education and which cannot seem to produce results, shouldn’t we be trying to find creative and innovative ways to assist parents?

To be perfectly honest I have no idea what the Department of Education does, but here is what the Department of Education website says:

In 1980, Congress established the Department of Education as a Cabinet level agency. Today, ED operates programs that touch on every area and level of education. The Department’s elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 14,000 school districts and some 56 million students attending roughly 99,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools. Department programs also provide grant, loan, and work-study assistance to more than 13 million postsecondary students.

Newsflash… it is an embarrassment that we have a Cabinet level agency devoted to education and we as a society are failing or children on such a massive and incomprehensible level.

Politicians talk about the American innovative spirit, tout technology, sign the praises of high-tech and green-tech jobs that are high paying compared with other jobs, such as service industry jobs.  Yet we continue with failed policies and failed initiatives.  Out of the top 10 companies seeking US patents in 2008 only 3 were US companies.   According to Inventive Step:

Of the top 100 companies with the most PCT filings in 2008, 38 were US companies, 28 were from Japan, and 13 from Germany. No US companies were in the top 10; Qualcomm, the US company with the most PCT filings in 2008, was 11th. In fact, four of the top five US applicant companies saw a decrease in the number of filings.

We are heading in the wrong direction.  While I do not personally agree with the politics of Bruce Springsteen, his song “My Hometown,” which is about my hometown of Freehold, NJ, hits the nail on the head.  The manufacturing jobs are gone and they are not coming back.  In order to forge ahead we continue to need a comprehensive innovation strategy.  What has started at the Patent Office during the Obama Administration is an excellent start, but our leaders need to turn their attention to other areas, and education should be high on the list.

What we need is something akin to a modern day National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which Congress passed in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, for the purpose of ensuring the availability of a highly trained US workforce able to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields.  With hundreds of billions of dollars being spent in Washington, D.C. as if money actually does grow on trees, the least we can do it reform our education process and give parents help they need to help our children. As Intel’s Inspired by Education website explains, innovation starts with education. How true!

To learn more about the Intel Education Initiative, visit http://www.intel.com/education.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and founder of IPWatchdog.com. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and an attorney with Widerman Malek. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 7 Comments comments.

  1. Patent Gal October 22, 2009 10:06 am

    Need to be able to attract folks with science degrees to teach elementary, middle and high school science. It may mean offering a premium for those individuals, because they can make more $ elsewhere in the economy. Unfortuneately teacher union here opposes such a system; to pay more for teachers teaching certain subjects. My child’s middle school science teacher is the english teacher…no science background or degree…you should hear the answer given as to why the sky is blue! SAD.

  2. step back October 22, 2009 12:00 pm

    What is the answer to why our government/ educational systems are the way they are?
    Bigger sad.

  3. College Help April 13, 2010 5:43 am

    I recently finished school and it has suddenly set in that I have absolutely no idea of the career road I should take. I have always been a “teachers pet” sort of student, but now that I have endured a few months in the real world, I feel that I have been focusing too much on unrealistic goals. I may need to seek out some kind of career planning or something of that nature to guide me in the right direction. Is there anyone that has been in the same boat?

  4. Markus June 9, 2010 4:14 pm

    Ok, maths and science are very important for innovations, no doubt about it. But my firm believe is that creativity and freedom of mind are substantial prerequisites as well. Because very often especially the math genious thinks too complicated for the more simple and brilliant innovations.