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May 10, 2007

U.S. needs sharper focus on sciences to maintain Nobel prominence

Imagine interacting and communicating directly with a Nobel Prize winner in physics or chemistry.

From Honeywell International to ExxonMobil, major corporations are working with schools at the secondary and elementary level as well as major universities to put the spotlight on how this nation can plant the seeds for the next generation of Nobel winners.

Study after study indicates that while this nation remains home to many of the best and brightest scientific minds, the gap is widening between our top scientists and those at our elementary and secondary education levels.

Fortunately, some momentum is on our side.

Five Americans won the 2006 Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry -- the first all-American club of science laureates since 1983.

The American sweep is filling the nation's science educators with pride over what we're doing especially well in our research labs. Experts say the U.S. dominance in recent scientific Nobel Prizes reflects decades of excellent research and training at our universities, working in tandem with strong public financing of basic research and accelerated efforts to modernize campus facilities.

U.S. scientists, however, know they can't rest on their laurels, especially with foreign universities in Europe, China, India, Australia and elsewhere attracting some of our best scientists. Add growing concerns about how well this nation is teaching science, math and other technical disciplines to students in grades K-12 and we have a second major hurdle to overcome.

A 2002 survey by the National Science Foundation indicated that half the U.S. public didn't know electrons are smaller than atoms or that dinosaurs and humans never walked the earth together.  According to the National Assessment Governing Board, more than 50 percent of U.S. students do not take any science classes in the 12th grade. Those who did take a science class ranked below the average of their international counterparts, a separate report by the Third International Math and Science Study shows.

Nobel Laureate John Hall, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2005 for advancements in laser-based precision spectroscopy to measure light emission properties of atoms and molecules more accurately, has stressed in his years as a researcher and educator that students -- no matter their age or scientific understanding --- learn by doing.

In other words, we must make the technical scientific terms, algorithms and equations in the textbooks come to life, according to Hall, who visited Purdue University in April as part of the Honeywell-Nobel Initiative, meeting with students and faculty members, and touring research laboratories in Discovery Park, the Physics Building and the Envision Center.

Younger students need more inspiring and motivating role models -- a Tiger Woods or Peyton Manning -- for our scientific communities.

During the recent Masters golf tournament, we saw TV commercials with Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, promoting the ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, launched to assist elementary school teachers in developing programs to excite students about science and math.

That's why Hall and a host of other Nobel laureates have joined with the Honeywell-Nobel Initiative to connect students across the globe with Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and physics through on-campus events, interactive Web site content and broadcast programming.

Encouraging news came out of Washington last week, as the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved two measures -- "10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds" and "Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research." The two bills are aimed at improving and supporting the national corps of math and science teachers and strengthening U.S. basic research.

The long-term answer will come from new ideas and better ways to engage our students. Our youth must see how building their own future and contributing to the progress of the human race depend on their understanding of science and math. We must get our youngsters excited about the science and technology inside their Xboxes and iPods.

Even if they don't become the next generation of Nobel winners, we need to touch the hearts and minds of the millions of children in this country so they know John Hall and Roderick MacKinnon as well as Tony Hawk and Derek Jeter.

— Andrew Hirsch is head of the physics department and a physics professor at Purdue University.

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