Doom and gloom. The United States is sliding down the science rankings. School achievement scores have dropped, forcing employers to look abroad. And the best students are being put off science and engineering. That’s according to a new report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” that suggests the country’s ability to compete internationally for quality jobs has declined over the last five years. It says the U.S. outlook is daunting if changes aren’t made.
Meanwhile, China is rising up the rankings. It produces 400,000 engineer graduates each year, twice as many as the U.S. It wants to own new intellectual property and make high value, high-tech products. Low-cost assembly combined with intellectual ambitions: a potent combination. China has already overtaken the U.S. in high-tech exports.
So what to do about it? I’ve been advising the U.K. government on how we boost science and engineering in Britain, both in the classroom and industry. One of the biggest challenges in the U.K. and U.S. is a lack of interest these subjects. It’s a worry. The U.S. is the biggest investor in research and development in the world. It has the best universities. Keeping them supplied with the best talent is essential.
It starts with education. We’re not inspiring children. Somewhere down the line we forgot that science and engineering were creative, exciting, and rewarding—that they could achieve the impossible and change the world. We need to look at how we teach, test, and challenge children. I can see why No Child Left Behind is increasingly coming under fire. While its intentions are admirable, standardized tests dampen enthusiasm for education, curb creativity, and put people off science and engineering.
The one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient but lazy. It’s a way of grading one school above another, one teacher above another, one student above another. But arbitrary benchmarks cheat kids out of a fulfilling education. In the workshop or lab, results are determined by experimentation and creativity, not rote learning.
Personally, I think children should be given credit for their mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn. Freedom to invent is freedom to fail; I should know, after 5,127 prototypes. Besides, since when did we want people to become conformists? I certainly don’t want to take on yes men. We’re looking for people—350 engineers, in fact—who have ideas and thoughts of their own. People whom we can challenge and who will challenge us to think differently. Break the mold.
We need to give schools the freedom to make the most of children’s talents, stretching them to be better. By stifling creativity, we limit our ability to produce new ideas and compete. China has all the advantages in the world. But it doesn’t have a history of free thinking, risk-taking pioneers—the kind of people the U.S. is built upon.
So how do we reverse this trend and encourage creativity? It starts with great teachers. Encouragingly, a new report by the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is recommending at least 100,000 new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) middle and high school teachers with strong, relevant majors, and the support they need to be top of their game.
Arbitrary benchmarks cheat kids out of a fulfilling education. In the workshop or lab, results are determined by experimentation and creativity, not rote learning.
President Obama has said money alone isn’t enough to fix the system. He’s right. Singapore is one the world’s top educational performers but spends less on primary education than 27 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It cherry-picks teachers, provides them with the right training, and shares best practice between schools.
We’re by no means perfect in how we teach STEM subjects in the U.K. We ban all but the mildest lab tests because of health and safety concerns and wonder why we can’t get kids excited about science. But what we do have is brilliant design and technology teaching. I was surprised to learn that this subject doesn’t exist in U.S. schools. We start children on D&T at a young age in the U.K. And they love it. It’s the perfect mix of art and science, form and function. It encourages children to make things using their hands and brains.
There are some exciting U.S. projects that are encouraging this kind of sensibility in young people. Purdue University’s INSPIRE program is looking to foster an interest in engineering at an early age. I look forward to seeing the work of these future problem solvers because, ultimately, ideas are the new currency—and creativity is the catalyst. We need to remove the safety net of standardized tests and let kids get things wrong once in a while. Let’s find inspiration in failure.