During his prepared remarks on Wednesday evening at the ceremony to award the Medals of Science and Medals of Technology and Innovation, President Obama discussed the importance of a quality science and mathematics education, and the fact that recently the White House played host to winners of science fairs. He explained that the White House hosts championship sports teams, so why not host science fair champions as well. This is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but where does this lead us? Yes, the President and those in Congress always say the right things regarding math, science, innovation and technology, but now it is time to build on the rhetoric with action.
The East Room of the White House was packed last night, and after the presentation of the awards there was a reception that followed. The reception hall was packed elbow to elbow. I know because I managed to wander into the reception room for a few minutes before being told that members of the press were not allowed. It seemed as if the White House assumed that those of us there for the first time knew the drill, but that is another story for another day. The point, however, is that this moment in time could have and probably should have been a shared moment between student high achievers and those who were awarded these high honors and are at the pinnacle of their scientific and engineering careers.
Our school aged children are suffering from woeful math and science scores, they are being out performed by similarly aged children from numerous countries, and yet we live in an age where technological knowledge and sophistication is every more required to succeed. It would indeed be nice to see President Obama use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to focus national attention to the importance of science and mathematics. Rewarding accomplished scientists and engineers is certainly one way, as is bringing a high profile to science fair winners.
At one point during his remarks last night President Obama said: “Nobody rushes on the field and dumps Gatorade on them (laughter) when you win a science award. Maybe they should!” Indeed we should celebrate science and math victories every much, if not more, than we celebrate sports victories, but that is not our culture unfortunately. We need to change our culture to raise the profile of those who are succeeding on every level in the scientific fields. President Obama can play a major role in bringing about that change, and his raising the profile of those who are science fair winners is certainly encouraging.
What better way to inspire youngsters than to expose them to those who have themselves been high achievers? One of the things that makes sports such a large part of the culture in this country is the fact that we watch and become familiar with sports figures. These sports figures become icons and those icons are who children want to be like. There is no professional league for scientists and engineers, not at least the same way there is for those who play football, baseball or basketball, but facilitating the interaction between interested, like-minded youngsters and those who have reached the top in the various fields of science and engineering seems like a worthwhile endeavor to me, and one that wouldn’t take much to accomplish if President Obama and the Executive Branch were willing to use the platform provided to encourage and facilitate such an exchange.
When I was at the Patent Office recently at the Inventors Conference I commented to one inventor that I wished I had been able to attend more sessions. I was teaching claim drafting throughout the two day Conference. I wasn’t complaining, but lamenting. The inventor asked me why I would want to attend. He said: “surely you must know everything others will talk about.” My response was that I know about the topics, yes, but every time I hear others talk I learn, even if it is just new and creative ways to convey difficult material to beginners. But when I listen to Hall of Fame inventors like Art Frye (the inventor of Post-it Notes) and others of varying levels of success I am always struck by their stories. They are frequently the same, but there is always something that can be learned, inspiration to be obtained, which can lead to motivation and ultimately to action.
We all know that networking is the way to get ahead. You meet like-minded individuals with common interests and if nothing else you learn and have a good time. The more of this you do the more connections you make and the greater the likelihood of finding opportunities, synergies and to obtain actionable information, or inspiration. We all know that for ourselves and our careers, but why don’t we apply that to our children? Last night the inventor of Super Glue was honored, as was the inventor of the digital camera and the team responsible for the conceptual design of the first microprocessor. What a wonderful opportunity it would have been to have had children and teenagers there to be able to interact with those individuals and the others who have dedicated their lives to science.
I personally think that we need to encourage science fiction in the classrooms more than we do. What we read and watched in terms of science fiction in grade school, high school and college becomes what we try and bring into being as scientists and engineers. We should engage these and other Medal winners to find out what inspired them and then do more of that. These folks are true national heroes and we can and should honor them, but we should do whatever we can to make sure that we lay the foundation for many more of these events to come. Students languishing in the classroom with respect to math and science is not a recipe for success.
The State where I am admitted, New Hampshire, participates in a program annually titled “A Lawyer in Every School.” Being a patent attorney and living in Virginia, I cannot participate, although did in some years while living in New Hampshire. The Patent community by and through the assistance and urging of the Patent Office, should adopt a similar program — A Patent Attorney in Every School. This is but one way to try and encourage students toward innovative activities. If we all do what we can little by little and build on feel-good moments like last night who knows what can happen.