Science Has Been a Top US Priority since Civil War

By Laura Yaun, Hands-on Labs, Inc.

Wishing HOL’s Scientist, Dr. Eric Punkay, a very rewarding future in teaching. You will be missed, but students need great teachers like you and we applaud your change of career decision.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences by signing into law the Act of Incorporation. The Civil War proved a great need for innovations, bringing citizens and government together. Weapon-testing departments were established as the president saw the importance of science and technology, making it law to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art.”


Just over a half century ago, the Soviet Union’s accomplishment with Sputnik scared our nation into the commitment to be the world leader in scientific and technological innovation, to invest in education, research, and engineering. NASA was formed and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act funding science and foreign language in public schools. That challenge produced an enormously talented and curious population resulting in incalculable benefits.

How is it then, that US students ranked 25th of 34 countries in math and science in 2009?

President Barack Obama addressed this problem by committing to the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program. “We know that the quality of math and science teacher is the most influential single factor in determining whether a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. Yet in high school more than 20 percent of students in math and more than 60 percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields.”

Programs like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) have been started to help recover from the drastic decline in these fields. STEM is effective because rather than listening to lectures, it is a hands-on class and it is fun, showing students what scientists actually do, motivating them toward achieving similar careers.

Teach For America is addressing the nation’s education problem by “recruiting, training, and supporting outstanding teachers to become effective leaders in STEM education.” Research proves “Teach For America corps members who teach math and science have a measurable, positive, and statistically significant impact on student achievement.”

The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative is working in partnership with schools like the University of Colorado to improve undergraduate science education. The program is made up of three core components: to establish what students should learn, what they actually are learning, then to improve learning by adapting proven practices.

Since the space race, our nation’s investment in science and science education has declined, being surpassed by other countries. President Obama believes that our nation’s character is not to follow, but to lead. “We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.”

Federal funding in the physical sciences has fallen by nearly half in the past 25 years. Only slightly more than 3 percent of the national GDP is now devoted to research and development. With the dedication and hard work of all who want students to thrive, our country will yet again be the world’s leader in scientific and technological innovation.

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