Tom West: This isn't rocket science; U.S. is playing the wrong game

One of my pet peeves is the overemphasis on high school athletics. This has been going on for a long time, and manifests itself in different ways. The brouhaha over Mike Randolph's firing and reinstatement as East hockey coach, for example, stand...

One of my pet peeves is the overemphasis on high school athletics. This has been going on for a long time, and manifests itself in different ways. The brouhaha over Mike Randolph's firing and reinstatement as East hockey coach, for example, stands in stark contrast to what would have happened if the Odyssey of the Mind or yearbook advisers had been charged with the same sins.

It is not uncommon for Duluth to send one of its athletic teams 70 to 150 miles away -- on a school night. I don't understand how any educator can justify that. If a student gets on a bus as school lets out and doesn't return home until midnight, does anyone really expect that student to show up for class the next morning ready to learn?

Our American society has evolved from the tinkerers and the doers who lived on family farms into urban dwellers who put great value on being entertained. Athletes and actors command enormous fees and the most attention.

Recently, however, I came across some disturbing statistics that suggest that if the United States wants to win the game of life, it needs to change its training habits. We're being passed by nations that put more emphasis on teaching science than on teaching the principles of zone defense.

The National Science Foundation reported recently that while the United States' 24-year-olds had earned twice as many bachelor's degrees as China, China conferred more than 3 1/2 times as many engineering degrees. In fact, only 17 percent of American college graduates earn degrees in engineering and science while 58 percent of Chinese do, 36 percent of South Koreans and a whopping 68 percent of Singapore natives.


The trend is even worse than the snapshot. In a speech sponsored by Hillsdale College, Robert J. Herbold of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted that in 1987, 4,700 U.S. citizens received Ph.D. degrees in science and engineering compared to 5,600 Asians. In 2001, only 4,400 U.S. citizens received science and engineering Ph.D.'s, while the number of Asians receiving similar Ph.D.'s had risen to 24,900. Not surprisingly, R. E. Smalley, a Noble Prize-winning scientist from Rice University in Texas concluded, "By 2010, 90 percent of all Ph.D. physical scientists and engineers in the world will be Asians living in Asia."

Much talk is being heard these days from commentators and politicians about "the emerging economic colossus" of China. This is one reason why. Americans are not keeping up in the brain game that will decide the winners and losers in this Age of Technology. Instead of encouraging our children to enter the sciences and demanding that our schools teach them to world-class standards, too many Americans are content to sit back and complain about corporations shipping jobs overseas.

The rationale for that is the belief that many overseas jobs are producing goods in sweatshops. The truth is, that's changing. The Asians have figured out what Americans know -- that the key to success is working smarter, not harder.

In America, many environmentalists like to sit around the campfire, sing "Kumbayah" and complain about the awful industrialists who pollute our air, ground and water. That's easy to do. What's hard is to attack pollution at the source. That is, to learn enough technology to become employed in research and development, and then to create the industrial processes that make both economic and environmental sense.

In 2000, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 18 percent of U.S. 12th graders were proficient in science and only 16 percent were proficient in math.

Don't misunderstand. American students are still capable of learning. The International Math and Science Study found that American fourth-graders ranked in the 88th percentile in science, meaning only 12 percent of the world's fourth- graders were doing better. Through the remainder of their schooling, however, Americans performed steadily worse, dropping to the 24th percentile in 12th grade.

That's why I feel distress every time I see a busload of students heading to the Twin Cities or the Iron Range on a school night to play a game. Our whole culture is placing the emphasis on the wrong area.

What should be done? First, our schools need to have math and science teachers qualified to teach the subject. In Duluth they do, but nationwide, 56 percent of students are being taught physical science by teachers who did not major or minor in that subject. Second, the National Commission on Excellence recommends that all students complete at least three years of math and two of science before they graduate. In Duluth, currently 10th through 12th-graders need complete only two years of each, although after the sophomores graduate, three years of each will be required for graduation.


What can you do to help change the culture? For starters, this coming Saturday, Feb. 26, from 8 a.m. to noon, the Northeast Regional Science Fair will be held at the College of St. Scholastica. If you care about the future of the nation, you should consider stopping by to encourage these young people by showing appreciation for their efforts. It may not be as exciting as a hockey or basketball game, but it's many times more important.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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