October 10, 2007

Confronting the science crisis with liberal arts education

(Portland, Ore.)—Concerns are growing in Congress, and among educators and scientists, that the United States is losing ground in the fields of science and technology.

(Portland, Ore.)—Concerns are growing in Congress, and among educators and scientists, that the United States is losing ground in the fields of science and technology. Recent studies have scrutinized the diminished government funding for scientific research and education systems that fail to inspire or prepare students for careers in science and technology. The 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch served as a reminder that the U.S. has faced a looming science crisis before—and succeeded. Julio De Paula, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, shares his views on the science crisis and what role a liberal arts college plays in heading it off.

By Julio de Paula

On October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 and issued an alarming ultimatum to the United States: either invest heavily in the sciences or risk losing your competitive edge. As a result of that historical launch by our most formidable enemy at the time, federal support for science research and education nearly tripled from 1958 to 1964.

As a child growing up in Brazil in the 1960s, I was fascinated by the “space race,” which sparked my life-long interest in the sciences. With help from my mother, I cobbled together a chemistry kit from household items, collected insects and rocks, and kept a scrapbook of space exploration news. My early passion for science resulted in a college degree—the first in my family—and a PhD in Chemistry.

On the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, the United States once again stands at the edge of a scientific frontier, contemplating serious questions about how to lead its exploration. We face daunting challenges, such as the threat of a flu pandemic, the development of efficient and renewable energy technologies, and the consequences of climate change. Unlike the space race—a competition marked by stunning achievements of two political superpowers—the science race today is global. The future of America will depend on strong scientific leadership, for the country that wins this race and commands the scientific frontier will control the global economy.

Numerous reports show that countries in Asia and Europe are making significant strides in science and engineering. China may well surpass the United States as a leader in discovery and innovation, due largely to well-funded strategies for improving science education from elementary school to the university. The think tank Asia Society reports that China is already implementing national standards for math and science education that humble those in our country. Their science teachers are better prepared to teach science, and begin doing so early in elementary school. It is clear that the Chinese government wants to prepare a workforce that can dominate the fields of science and technology.

Our future as a global leader depends, as it did in the Age of Sputnik and Apollo, on the vigorous efforts of government leaders to reinvest in science and technology. Recent federal efforts offer a glimmer of hope. In August, Congress passed a competitiveness bill signaling its support for more funding for research and science education. President Bush has indicated that doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation—an agency created to “promote the progress of science”—over the next 10 years is a priority. These are comforting promises and American scientists hope that our leaders will act immediately.

One of our advantages over looming competitors is the liberal arts education system. In a liberal arts college, students, regardless of their chosen areas of specialization, explore seemingly unrelated disciplines—such as history, economics, science, and the arts—and discover connections between different threads of human experience that lead to the evolution of society. Scientists trained in the tradition of the liberal arts understand the socioeconomic and political contexts of the problems being tackled and are more likely to find solutions that affirm human rights, protect the environment, and raise standards of living across the globe. We must apply the principles of a liberal arts education as early as possible, so that integration of concepts of science—in particular the scientific method of inquiry—and math into lessons in social studies and language arts can begin in elementary school. The result will be a voting public that is informed about science and that can insist on an economic infrastructure that fosters scientific research and technological advancement.

What motivates a child today to engage the sciences? Looking back to my childhood, I recall being thrilled by the work of astronauts and being encouraged by my parents to ask questions. Inspirational science stories can spark a child’s imagination, and parental guidance can motivate inquiry. As government and business leaders, journalists, educators, and parents we all share the responsibility to prepare the next generation to command the scientific frontier.