Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spacewalk and Science Proficiency in the US : A Tale of Two Worlds

To spin a popular Charles Dickens opening line somewhat differently, "It is the best of science, it is the worst of science".

"Rocket Science" is a metaphor for complex tasks that demands superiority in science and math. While the Russian milestones starting with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight are no less noteworthy and even though the ISS coalesced technical partnerships of a broad coalition and not just the US, yet America's leading role in space technology (i.e. "rocket science") is beyond question.  It was the lead country to adopt a sustained national space program with establishment of NASA

The milestones have been nothing short of spectacular - moon landing, Skylab, Mars missions, Cassini Saturn mission, space station, reusable space shuttles, communication satellites, GPS and on and on. I am reminded of that excellence every time US astronauts aboard the space station do a space walk to replace Hubble telescopes' lens or to fix the ammonia leak of thecooling system as they did yesterday - while orbiting the earth at 5 miles per second. 

But here is the paradox... as of 2011, the same country with so much to claim on real rocket science only had a 32 percent proficiency rate in math among its high school students.

 While the Curiosity rover crawls on real Martian soil looking for water, the humbling down-to-earth 2010 fact is that US students scored 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared to 65 other top industrial countries. Curiously enough, there is very little uproar.

 If the media is any reflection of the collective psyche of the country, it seems we are more fixated on reality TV, American Idol or the juvenile antics of our lawmakers trying to satisfy their respective lobbies.

Encouragingly, there is a growing awareness and movement to improve and expand STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the US. I only hope the momentum builds fast enough to change the course. As I noted in an earlier blog, science and technology have proven to be the most important force of true progress in improving human life and civilization. 

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