Obama to Scientists: What Can You Do for Your Country?

By Sean Cavanagh — April 27, 2009 3 min read
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Barack Obama sounded a JFK-style motif in a speech before the National Academy of Sciences today. It came through not only in his direct mining of quotations from the 35th president, and his references to Kennedy’s (and President Eisenhower’s) scientific initiatives post-Sputnik. Obama, to be sure, indicated he’d put money and political capital into scientific research and K-12 science education. But he called for some shared sacrifice in return. Specifically, he seemed to beseech scientists to step out of their labs and research facilities a lot more often, to help sell young people on the wonder of science, and the benefits of careers in math- and science-related fields.

These remarks caught my eye:

“So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you,” Obama said. “I want to encourage you to participate in programs to allow students to get a degree in science fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent—to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”

Obama’s comments brought to mind the complaints I’ve heard from both K-12 science teachers and college faculty over the years—that scientists don’t always try hard enough to explain the value of their work and why it matters to lay audiences. I heard this criticism a lot during recent controversies over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Science teachers often bemoaned the public’s overall lack of knowledge about evolutionary theory, yet many of them admitted that they weren’t that adept at explaining the theory’s relevance, at least not in easily digestible form. The scientific community seems to have become far more determined on that front in recent years in getting its message out to the public, on evolution and other topics. And many top research institutions invest heavily in outreach to the K-12 community. Obama suggested that he expects scientists to not only be pioneers in their fields, but ambassadors to the next generation.

On a newsier front, the president also pledged to reward state that take innovative approaches to helping students in math and science, with access to federal stimulus money: “[S]tates making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete later this fall for additional funds under the Secretary of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program,” Obama said. In addition, he called for them to “dramatically improve achievement in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms. I’m challenging states, as well, to enhance teacher preparation and training, and to attract new and qualified math and science teachers to better engage students and reinvigorate those subjects in our schools.”

He also suggested that his administration support measures to draw career-changers and math-and-science related professionals into teaching: “[L]et’s create new pathways for experienced professionals to go into the classroom,” the Obama said. “ There are, right now, chemists who could teach chemistry, physicists who could teach physics, statisticians who could teach mathematics. But we need to create a way to bring the expertise and the enthusiasm of these folks –- folks like you –- into the classroom.”

He also pointed to a statewide “STEM” initiative in Pennsylvania as a good model for other states. You can read the full transcript of his remarks here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.