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Building on Rhetoric: Time to Inspire Youth in Math & Science


Written by Gene Quinn
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Patent Attorney, Reg. No. 44,294
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: November 18, 2010 @ 8:30 pm
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Medal awarded to Warren M. Washington for development of global climate models.

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.

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Posted in: Gene Quinn, IP News, IPWatchdog.com Articles, Technology & Innovation

About the Author

is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.

 

19 comments
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  1. I am genuinely shocked that you are unaware that this is just what the president has been doing for the last two (2) years. He was encouraging students to dream and be the best when he was severely criticized by the so-called “right” for indoctrination. I am truly shocked.

  2. Hope-

    You are shocked, really?

    You are correct, he and every other politician talks about this same thing month after month, year after year. Pretending that President Obama is different or unique is really unbecoming and shows your bias. Talk is cheap after a while though. Yes, he has done some things on the periphery, so have others over the years. The reality is that classroom performance is lower than acceptable for the US to maintain a technological advantage over the rest of the world. That is the indisputable fact.

    As for the indoctrination, what the President was criticized for, unfairly I think, was the fact that many schools were having their students sign songs of praise to him and perform dances to celebrate him. That is distasteful. That kind of behavior does nothing to advance a math and science agenda, and smacks of the type of parading about of children you would expect to see from a third world country paying homage to a dictator. Not the President’s fault, but if you are going to comment here you need to keep things intellectual honest and factual. To suggest, as you did, that President Obama has been criticized for his efforts to encourage math and science education is ridiculous and simply not factual.

    You are more than welcome to return to being shocked. I apologize for infusing facts into the discussion and ruining it for you.

    -Gene

  3. The reality is that classroom performance is lower than acceptable for the US to maintain a technological advantage over the rest of the world.

    The reality is that at some point you have to start leaving some kids behind, or the smarter kids will be forced to “keep up” with them. Technological development is driven by the intellectual and creative elite, not the people who barely get by. The American dream is based on the idea that people have the opportunity to excel. In an academic setting that means we have to start respecting experts and educated people, and recognizing that such people have a disproportionate contribution to make in their respective fields compared to some loud guy with an opinion and a picket sign.

    the fact that many schools were having their students sign songs of praise to him and perform dances to celebrate him. That is distasteful.

    The famous clip you remember seeing on Faux News was creatively edited down from a larger musical number that mentioned all the other presidents too. It was more historical in nature than laudatory of the current administration. Not that the previous administration didn’t have its share of “stand by our president no matter what” about it.

    That kind of behavior does nothing to advance a math and science agenda,

    Well, sure, but I don’t think it was being done as part of the math and science curriculum either. You can’t say with any degree of confidence that it adversely affected how well the kids did in math class afterward.

    Teaching religion doesn’t advance a math and science agenda either, but it doesn’t appreciably retard it as long as the two aren’t taught in the same room at the same time.

  4. IANAE-

    I think we are largely in agreement. I brought up that musical number because that was what Obama was criticized for. The previous comment suggested that he was being criticized for indoctrination due to his support of math and science education. That is a ridiculous claim, and I would love to see legitimate proof that the President supporting math and science education was criticized.

    I think we need a frank and open discussion. Generalizations are not helpful. Sometimes the teachers are going overboard and not presenting fair and balanced material, particularly at Universities which I have witnessed first hand, so sometimes the person with the sign is more accurate and honest. The point of this article was really to try and encourage the advancement to a point where there is a discussion. Continually using platitudes and hollow rhetoric makes for good sound bites, but nothing changes. Both parties are guilty. President Obama’s rhetoric here seems backed by at least some action, so we ought to encourage more of that and offer ways to break the stalemate.

    Cheers.

    -Gene

  5. Gene,

    would you teach middle school math for a $46,000 a year salary + benefits? That’s about average for public school teachers in the Commonwealth of VA. Keep in mind that entry level salary is substantially lower than that. Without paying a decent wage, you will not get intelligent, skilled applicants. That’s true for nearly any job.

    Even Fairfax county (one of the largest and wealthiest school systems in the Commonwealth) has locked out both cost of living and seniority pay raises for all teachers. For the most part, they’re all making the same they were making last year, and those that stay will be making the same next year too. The poorest school districts in this country can’t afford to buy textbooks for every kid, or hire the correct amount of teachers, forget about improving salaries. Many schools employ people with barely more than a high school degree as teachers, as these are the only people that will do the 60-70 hour a week job for such low pay.

    Many schools in inner cities (such as Baltimore) give kids A’s for attending class every day. Literally. That’s how bad it’s gotten. When the teachers have 40-50 kids in each class and 6 classes to teach and little or no assistance in grading, they don’t have many options anyway.

    What would you suggest that Obama should do? Increase education spending maybe? Without spending money on it, it’s inevitably all just talk and rhetoric. And you can forget about buying science fiction for them when the teacher can’t assign homework because there aren’t enough books for the kids to take them home, and the school is 10% below the legally-required number of teachers.

    Many will brand Obama as a “Socialist” if he tries to increase the education budget. (Too bad McCarthy’s not around any more, they could plug their ears and call him a “Communist” instead.) As you say, both parties are to blame. Elected officials want to cut education spending, not raise it. For example, during the Bush administration they voted to strip federal funding from underperforming school districts, many of which could not afford to hire a full complement of teachers at salaries even lower than 40k a year before that funding was taken away. For another example, Governor Gilmore in VA spent the largest budget surplus in the history of the Commonwealth on his “no car tax” plan, and two years later they cut the budget for Virginia’s higher education by about 15%, two years in a row as the state experienced two of its worst defecits in history.

    Those are just examples of the re-election mentality poisoning the USA. The elected officials (and CEOs of large companies as well) refuse to think about anything past the time when they leave office. So they mortgage our nation off to China, cut spending on education and cripple the PTO (among other things) and leave the mess for the next generation to clean up.

  6. I’m not sure Obama is branded a socialist for his positions on education. It has far more to do with his nationalizing private businesses.

    In any event, you say nothing will change without more funding, and that is really garbage. We spend more and more per student with results declining. Look at the schools in DC. They spend like crazy per student and the results are terrible. Private schools spend a fraction per student and have dramatically higher success rates. So the evidence conclusively proves that spending on education is not the problem.

  7. Gene,

    I have only one problem with your reply.

    The statement you made “Private schools spend a fraction per student and have dramatically higher success rates” is based on the assumption that private school tuition is the equivalent of the amount spent per student by the private schools. These are the only data available. If you want “real numbers” from private schools, they are not releasing them, nor do they have any reason to release their financial data to the public.

    See for example, the Cato Institute paper on the subject which makes that very assumption. In it, Schaeffer digs deep for hidden public school expenditures and just casually compares that with average tuition for private schools and concludes that private school is more efficient because tuition is lower.

    In reality, the private schools often have large endowments and receive substantial donations outside of tuition, especially in the affluent DC area. Jesuit schools, for example, are funded in part by the Catholic church. That’s not even getting into expenditures like free school breakfasts, lunches, teaching ESL or special needs and other things most private schools don’t deal with, but most public ones do.

    But that debate still did not answer my question.

    Since we both can agree that Obama proposing to increase the budget really won’t get us anywhere, then how can Obama or other politicians, specifically, improve science and math education beyond just rhetoric? It’s very easy to say they should do something, but hard to say what that something is.

    Personally, I think more effort needs to be made to encourage education in the home for infants and toddlers. How do we do that? I’m not sure.

  8. Chris-

    You ask: “how can Obama or other politicians, specifically, improve science and math education beyond just rhetoric?”

    One thing to start would be to take on the teachers unions. There is simply no reason for a teacher to get tenure after 2 years of teaching and at an age under 25 have a job for life, regardless of competence. The teachers unions need to be taken on because they don’t seem to care what is best for the children, but rather only what is best for them. Understandable, so the blame is not on the unions, but rather on the politicians who have allowed for the situation to deteriorate so much.

    I also think that gestures like hosting a ceremony for science fair winners is an excellent step. More things like that need to be done. It costs little to give that kind of encouragement and raise the profile. It is also true that if a politician makes a call companies take the call. If the President wanted to mobilize industry to create incentives to students and teachers and schools to succeed that could happen.

    There are a lot of things that can be done. Obviously, it is up to the students to succeed. But whatever we can do to encourage them is helpful.

    -Gene

  9. In any event, you say nothing will change without more funding, and that is really garbage. We spend more and more per student with results declining.

    Right. The problem isn’t money, the problem is the people who manage spending the money. Most countries get by on much less money per student and get a better education out of the deal.

    Now, there aren’t enough textbooks, there aren’t enough teachers, and the teachers are woefully underpaid. So where’s the too-much-money going, and why can’t it be redirected to salaries and textbooks?

    Compare and contrast the PTO, which also doesn’t have enough workers to meet statutory goals, and whose workers are also underpaid and undermotivated. At least we know most of their budget is going to pay examiners to examine. If they’re still not getting the work done at that point, it’s because they don’t have enough people and they’re not managing their people well. Give them more money, because at least we know what they’ll spend it on.

    There is simply no reason for a teacher to get tenure after 2 years of teaching and at an age under 25 have a job for life, regardless of competence. The teachers unions need to be taken on because they don’t seem to care what is best for the children, but rather only what is best for them.

    In fairness, whoever is wasting all the money doesn’t really care what’s best for teachers or students, and the teachers clearly need as powerful a union as they can get if they’re so poorly paid as it is. I don’t mind if teachers look out for themselves, but it does bother me when people contractually insulate themselves from the consequences of incompetence. I wonder how much more salary the teachers’ unions would need in exchange for being able to fire the truly awful ones. I’m sure it would be more than enough money to attract good teachers to replace them.

  10. I don’t know about Obama, but if the USPTO wants to do something to encourage young inventors, how about any application filed by a person under that age of 16 automatically gets made special with a guaranteed first office action in six weeks or less?

    Several students in our town’s magnet middle school recently won an inventor’s contest for a clever device to prevent lockers being slammed shut. See http://bit.ly/lockerstopper for more details. I’d love to work with them to file a patent application. It would be a tremendous educational experience.

    But telling a middle schooler that they are not going to hear back from the patent office for three years takes a lot of the incentive out of it.

  11. IANAE-

    You say: “there aren’t enough teachers…”

    I am starting to wonder whether that is really the case. I don’t have hard evidence yet, but it seems to me that class size has shrunk dramatically since I was a kid, and test scores have gone down and spending has gone up. Does anyone have any statistics or know where they can be obtained?

    You say: “I don’t mind if teachers look out for themselves, but it does bother me when people contractually insulate themselves from the consequences of incompetence.”

    I think we are exactly on the same page there.

    Cheers.

  12. it seems to me that class size has shrunk dramatically since I was a kid, and test scores have gone down and spending has gone up.

    Smaller class size is a desirable goal, until it reaches the point where you either run out of classrooms or are forced to hire bad teachers because there aren’t enough good ones.

    Smaller class size will necessarily increase costs, and of course we have to decide how much education we are willing to pay for at current market rates. A lot, apparently, based on how much we’re spending.

    Now, the big question is, if we’ve more or less perfected the cargo cult that is our education system, why are test scores and general proficiency circling the bowl? My guess is a combination of society not respecting educated people (including all those people on TV who make a career in being an uneducated jerk seem so accessible), schools treating students like prisoners (albeit with lower-quality food), and teachers not caring whether our children is learning.

  13. IANAE-

    I also wonder what impact parental involvement plays. I suspect that the more involved parents are, and the more educated the parents, the better the students do. There is only so much we can expect from schools, and it seems to me that the lowest performing schools are from the inner cities and extremely rural areas where overall education levels of the population are lowest and parents are not that involved in their lives of their kids.

    -Gene

  14. OK, I’m going to through some gasoline on the fire, since I’m from a country where the students do score higher. One of the reasons that they do, is that we actually are willing to spend money on education. Oh, we don’t spend enough in some cases, and we often don’t target the right things, but we do spend money.

    Of course we also have income tax rates that would make the Koch brothers scream in pain.

    The point being, that you have to fund your school system, and the only way to fund it is taxes. If the United States isn’t willing to pay taxes, it isn’t willing to fund a school system, and the end result will be that the United States will become a third world country.

    Wayne

  15. Mad Hatter-

    I am not sure you are correct. The education issue is a difficult one. In the US it seems where the most money is spent the scores are the worst. It seems to me that this data suggests something else other than money is in play. I suspect that it has to do with family involvement and living situation/environment. In places where parents are not engaged and there are a lot of broken families and difficult living conditions, violence and gangs the scores seem lowest.

    Is there any similar difficulties north of the border?

    -Gene

  16. Not in the same way. Because of the way our system is set up, money is more evenly distributed (Provincial Government handles it rather than the municipality). While there are still small communities who are less fortunate in funding, things are a lot more even then they were fifty years ago. I was involved during the last major set of changes as a member of the parent’s council for my kid’s school, so I got to see a lot of what was happening first hand. And my wife is a certified ‘Educational Assistant’, which requires a college education in Canada, so we as a family are very interested in what’s happening, even though our kids are out of the public system now (youngest is nineteen).

    However socioeconomic issues are a big problem, i.e. if you live on the bad side of the tracks, you are less likely to excel in school. Hell, if you are scared witless all of the time, because of the local gang, it would be a miracle if you did do well.

    On the other hand, things that American politicians scream about, such as single parent and same sex families, unstable (i.e. serial monogamist lifestyle) aren’t really considered a problem here. We’ve had same sex marriage in Canada for over five years, and it’s not an issue for student achievement, even if some people aren’t comfortable with it (FYI – an old friend of the family divorced recently and came out of the closet, I wish him the best of luck).

    But there are problems with the curriculum, and the current provincial government doesn’t appear capable of fixing the problem. We have some damned good politicians, however it’s the jerks that appear to rise to the top.

    Wayne

  17. Gene,

    Did I run into your link limits again?

    Wayne

  18. Wayne-

    Not sure why the spam filter caught that one. Maybe it just doesn’t like north of the border traffic!

    How much of a problem are teacher unions in Canada? In the US it seems that they effectively manage to block most all reform efforts. I think we have a confluence of issues that are forcing the trajectory downward in the US.

    -Gene

  19. For that you really need to talk to my wife, since she has worked in the system and I haven’t. While she was working in the system, she was a union member, and took part in contract negotiations.

    From a layman’s standpoint, I’d say they that are no worse than management. Between the two, they can mess anything up.

    Cynicism moi?

    Wayne