Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

A very topical Op-Ed piece from Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle by Intel Chairman Craig Barrett. I liked it so much I include it in its entirety here.

Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Two years ago, the National Academies published the seminal study on U.S. competitiveness entitled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The study identified major shortcomings in U.S. investments in basic scientific research as well as in math and science education for our youngsters. The suggestions contained in this study were immediately picked up by the Democratic House Leadership as their competitiveness strategy and later by President Bush in his State of the Union message under his American Competitiveness Initiative. Legislation in the form of the America Competes Act was passed in the House and Senate in 2007, and it appeared the United States was finally going to move forward after years of neglect to increase investment in math, science and basic research. All parties agreed that our competitiveness in the 21st century was at stake and we needed to act.

So much for political will.

The recent budget deal between Republicans and Democrats effectively flat-funds or cuts funding for key science agencies. Excluding "earmarks," the Department of Energy funding for fiscal year 2008 is up only 2.6 percent, thus losing ground to inflation. The National Science Foundation is up 2.5 percent, with the same result. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is up 11 percent, however the labs where research happens only get 2.3 percent, again losing ground to inflation. Key national laboratories, such as the Fermilab, which focuses on high-energy particle physics research, face the likelihood of hundreds of jobs being lost and the closing of some facilities, helping to shortchange defense research. Predicting the impact of such funding cuts in basic research on future job creation is difficult. Who could have predicted a $300 billion semiconductor industry from the invention of a transistor? But our kids who are heading to college are very smart. They will make their career decisions based on where they see the priorities of our government and economy.

The funding decisions on the America Competes Act took place a few days after Congress passed a $250 billion farm bill. In the eyes of our political leaders, apparently, corn subsidies to Iowa farmers are more important for our competitiveness in the next century than investing a few billion in our major research universities. The president expressed his happiness with the budget and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said, "The president didn't get his priorities, we got ours."

At a time when the rest of the world is increasing its emphasis on math and science education (the most recent international tests - NAEP and PISA - show U.S. kids to be below average) and increasing their budgets for basic engineering and physical science research, Congress is telling the world these areas are not important to our future. At a time when we are failing our next generation of students, politically charged topics such as steroids in Major League Baseball and the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes command instantaneous congressional hearings while the seed corn (no pun intended) of our future is ignored and placed lower in priority than billions of dollars of earmarks.

Perhaps this would all be a moot discussion if we could continue to import the best and brightest minds from around the world to start and staff our next generation of high tech startups. But Washington can't even get that strategy straight, as legal immigration - the process by which bright, highly educated workers immigrate to the United States - is being choked by our inability to control illegal immigration. While the EU has proposed a simplified and expanded program for importing highly educated talent from the rest of the world, we continue to make if more difficult for the same talent to work in the United States, even when some of these knowledge workers have received their education in the United States at partial taxpayer expense.

Where are the voices in Washington to bring reasoned debate and action to these topics? Where are the voices among the presidential candidates to propose solutions to these challenges? What do we elect our political leaders for if not to protect our long-term future?

The United States stands at a pivotal point in our history. Competition is heating up around the world with millions of industrious, highly educated workers who are willing to compete at salaries far below those paid here. The only way we can hope to compete is with brains and ideas that set us above the competition - and that only comes from investments in education and R&D. Practically everyone who has traveled outside the United States in the last decade has seen this dynamic at work. The only place where it is apparently still a deep, dark secret is in Washington, D.C.

What are they thinking? When will they wake up? It may already be too late; but I genuinely think the citizenry of this country wants the United States to compete. If only our elected leaders weren't holding us back.

Craig Barrett is the chairman of Intel."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Build your own ROV

OK, it's too late to apply for this February, but it appears an ongoing annual (?) workshop for teachers building underwater ROV's (Remotely Operated Vehicles) at the Georgia Aquarium has lots of cool WISE potential.

The robotics connection is obvious, potentially offering our robotics teams some off-season practice in a cool new venue. Also, there are some ROV competitions offered by the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center.

The best part of this is the potential of a project like this to provide open-ended opportunities for student exploration and research. With mounted cameras and probes, you need not restrict yourself to ocean exploration. What about venturing into the Chattahoochee River or any of the lakes around us. ROVs are also useful to explore areas where human beings cannot or should not venture for reasons of safety, size, access, etc. It would be cool to explore scalability issues with ROVs. What other engineering possibilities are there?

So, it looks like the GA Aquarium is offering this for teachers, but I see absolutely no reason why high school students couldn't be involved with something like this immediately.

I'll post more information when I hear back from the GA Aquarium about their ROV training session schedule. For those in other areas, a quick Google search shows current or past ROV teacher training in Santa Barbara, CA, Norfolk, VA, and other areas.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Purposely Teaching Innovation and Creativity

As the US economy shifts from an industrial production base to one based on information technology and intellectual property, the importance of innovation in science, math and technology increases apace. Now, more than ever before, the economic wellbeing of the United States depends on how well our nation can invent creative new technologies and novel and original solutions to world-shaking challenges while observing ever more difficult constraints on energy and resource utilization.

The old imperatives to invent efficient manufacturing infrastructure and train people to man them is no longer the focus of our future economy. And yet almost all of our nation's technical educational systems from Kindergarten through graduate schools are still built around the "traditional" model designed to support the industrialization of America. In that sense, our current school system was designed to train a population to efficiently perform regular and repetitive tasks that required well-known skills. It's not much of a stretch to realize that such a system designed to replicate specific skills and inculcate known approaches to well-understood problems is not well-suited to foster creativity.

Unfortunately, the world's technology landscape has changed so rapidly over the last decades that today's largest prospective economic engines surrounding computing, telecommunications, network technologies, stem cells, synthetic biology, and a host of others literally did not even exist when I was in school. And so I, and hundreds of thousands of other students who matriculated from US schools during the interval learned a huge amount of subject matter that was outdated long before we were truly material to the US economy. We survived in the profession by learning how to solve new problems as they came up. We had to be creative and innovative despite the fact that nobody had ever specifically taught us how to be so.

Recent surveys of executives running the most technology-oriented of the Fortune 500 companies, universities and research laboratories were almost unanimous when asked what skills they were looking for in this century's future work force. Almost none of them asked for the traditional subject matter that is the focus of most today's standardized tests. Instead, they almost unanimously were looking for creativity, the ability to innovate and come up with novel solutions to new problems that had never been seen before.

"Critical thinking" and "thinking outside the box" are often mentioned as goals of educational approaches, and yet even those programs that tout hands-on and inquiry-based pedagogy are almost universally very structured with pre-determined "correct" outcomes. Where is the room for creativity? Where can a student actually discover something new, or create something that never existed before?

In contrast, at WISE, we help schools build environments that are specifically designed to purposely foster creativity, and offer places and times for students to regularly practice fundamental technical skills while creating their own unique solutions to progressively more complicated and extensive challenges, and better yet, discovering and pursuing original lines of inquiry of their own.

This effort turns out to cover a lot of ground from organization to logistics, to training, and even includes financial support. But just building a space and populating it isn't enough, because aside from a few exceptions, students exposed to an open environment for the first time have no idea how to exercise their own initiative and begin learning, exploring, and innovating on their own. There needs to be a concerted effort to design and support introductory activities that teach fundamental creative and innovation-oriented skills and philosophies. Some of the recent growth in robotics and rocketry type competitions has really helped in this direction.

The good news is that we now have a pretty good idea of how to build these environments all the way down to the Kindergarten level. If we manage to achieve some of the fundamental goals of our organization, children at WISE schools will be specifically challenged to begin innovating at an early age and get regular practice all the way through high school.

The key is that lab and inquiry-based assignments need to consistently have regular open-ended components where there is no specific "answer" but rather there exist unlimited avenues to approach a challenge. These sorts of activities will be a strong focus of this web log on an ongoing basis. Stay tuned to learn more about how we have set up specific labs and activities.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rookie FLL Team Qualifies for State!!!

In our first year in the FIRST Lego League competitions, one of our junior high school teams (Robocats 3) qualified at the Clayton State University Tournament (January 12, 2008) for the Georgia state tournament to be held at GA Tech February 9, 2008.

They began the year as an all-girls team of four (three 8th graders and one 7th) and added two boys early in the fall semester 2007. Despite scheduling conflicts, declining participation, and other difficulties, two of the girls persevered, discovering that even when everything else fell apart around them, they were strong and determined enough to see it through on their commitments.

Over their four months of robot design and development, they evolved a technically complicated NXT robot with some quite sophisticated approaches to solving the many missions in the 2007 FLL Power Puzzle Challenge. While they had many operational difficulties with the performance of their robot in Saturday's tournament, the students hit home runs in the Robot Design and Teamwork categories and they won the Project Award, proving that performance on all fronts is necessary for true team success.

Concerning their only weak spot from the tournament, they know their robot could and should have performed much better. They are re-energized and more determined than ever to refine their NXT robot to fix their shortcomings before the January 9th tournament.

This has been one of the most spectacular experiences in my 18-year teaching career. I am more convinced than ever that we must put our students in open-ended situations where they use what they know to find creative, original solutions to problems and they solve them on their own with appropriate minimal assistance and guidance from those around them. These two girls found a way to conquer a litany of obstacles stacked against them and they emerged confident, energized and determined. Look out world!

(This was also posted to the Westminster Robotics Blog)