A celebration of science is needed to spur students

By Pearl Freier

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s comments last week regarding the U.S. rank of 25th out of 41 industrial nations in math performance – and the business book with the most buzz in our technology and business community right now, Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat – are strong reminders that our nation and even New England continued to fall behind in education in 2005.

According to the Science and Engineering Indicators 2004 report issued by the National Science Board (NSB), U.S. preeminence in science and technology is at risk.

The report states that, in the United States, science and engineering jobs have increased more than four times the rate of total employment over the past 20 years.

In order to inspire more students to pursue science and engineering, it will take a combination of education reform with an emphasis on teacher training, support from corporations and government, and support from our media-obsessed culture with help from a blockbuster pop-cultural event or program that has the ability to inspire thousands, perhaps millions.

Initiatives like the Massachusetts Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Collaborative and the Massachusetts Biotech Council’s BioTeach program are making progress in promoting science and technology education. The Mass STEM Collaborative is supported by leaders at universities like Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and corporate leadership from companies including Raytheon Co., Analog Devices Inc., and EMC Corp. It is focused on promoting and assessing effective programs to increase student interest in the sciences.

BioTeach is supported by corporate biotech/pharmaceutical industry partners including Genzyme Corp., Wyeth, Novartis, Serono, AstraZeneca, Biogen Idec, and the Mass Biotech Council. The program helps selected public high schools in their efforts to teach biotechnology in their biology programs by providing teacher training, working with teachers to design biotech curricula, and subsidizing new lab equipment.

As far as a blockbuster cultural event that could inspire future technology entrepreneurs, New England may have one in the Museum of Science’s Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit. This past Veteran’s Day, the MBTA was flooded with kids and their parents who weren’t on their way to Fenway Park or to a concert, but to the museum. The museum produced the exhibit in partnership with Lucasfilm Ltd. and does more than celebrate the Star Wars films and showcase costumes and memorabilia. It’s an interactive exhibition that builds on George Lucas’ technology vision in the films and encourages children and adults to imagine how technologies will impact our lives in the future and in some cases even in the present.

As attendees ride on hovercrafts, they can learn about the science behind transportation technologies and magnetic levitation. They learn about challenges facing current robot designers and work with computer graphics.

They see what breakthroughs scientists are working on at local companies that are showcased, including Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc.’s Braingate and Abiomed Inc.’s Abiocor replacement heart. They hear from today’s technology innovators including MIT Media Lab’s Cynthia Breazeal, who directs the Lab’s Robotic Life Group, sharing how her work was inspired by the Star Wars films.

While we need to worry about tomorrow’s work force and labor shortage, it will be important for our education system to capitalize on this excitement in New England. Science and technology is the “new cool thing” many kids in New England are and will be talking about in school these days. We need to mobilize this excitement, before it’s forgotten again.

Pearl Freier is president of Cambridge BioPartners, an executive search and work force strategy firm serving the biotech and medical technology industries. She can be reached at pearl@cambridgebiopartners.com.

And they may save one more technology worker or scientist from leaving Massachusetts.