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Originally published Friday, December 18, 2009 at 4:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington must inspire a new generation of American scientists and engineers

Washington state should set a goal to be No. 1 in math and science in the nation within 10 years, writes guest columnist Bonnie J. Dunbar, retired NASA astronaut. She discusses how to inspire young people to achieve in this subjects.

Special to The Times

THE challenge of educating enough scientists and engineers to keep our nation economically healthy, prosperous and competitive, with an acceptable quality of life, has been a part of my professional life for at least 20 years — especially after I retired as an active astronaut in 1998 and became assistant director at the NASA Johnson Space Center. About that time, we learned that the Space Station development schedule was being impacted by the inability to find enough U.S.-educated engineers.

The problem has only gotten worse; some say it's a crisis. In 2008, the U.S. produced only about 74,000 engineers total, well off its 1980s peak in a time when engineering skills are more in demand than ever. That problem is compounded by the high retirement rate of the Apollo-era engineers. The graduation rates for undergraduates, master's and doctoral students in all college science and engineering majors has been tracked by the National Science Foundation (NSF) since 1946.

In 2001, the Commission on National Security in the 21st century cited as one of the most prominent threats the state of our K-12 education in math and science, followed closely by our inability to educate teachers in those subjects.

In 2005, the National Academy of Engineers published a report titled: "Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future." Again, K-12 education in math and science was found severely deficient. Again, a clarion call was made to educate more teachers in those subjects.

I take this problem personally and have participated on numerous national panels about the issue over the past 15 years. It was the primary reason I returned to Seattle and the Museum of Flight — to help inspire our youth, their parents and teachers to dream big, to encourage our youth to finish high school and to encourage them to engage in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects.

It is time we all take it personally. To do less is to risk our quality of life and our prosperity, and to break an unwritten covenant with our youth.

I grew up in the Outlook area of the Yakima Valley. I was the first to attend college in my family, and a second-generation American on my father's side. So how did this happen? How is it that a 9-year-old girl from a remote cattle ranch in central Washington could achieve her dream of designing and flying in spaceships?

The answer is fairly straightforward: a national goal to explore space, which engaged my imagination; parents who believed in education and made me do my homework; teachers who were trained in their subjects and held me to high standards, and "algebra" — what I tell middle-school students is my "magic word."

I had a dream, but I didn't know how to enable it. Thanks to nudges by a couple of teachers, I found algebra and engineering were the answers. I eventually learned what civilizations have known for more than 8,000 years: that we physically live and survive on the basis of mathematics and science, rational reasoning, research and deduction.

Science and engineering give us the tools to understand the physical and biological world around us. Engineering gives us the capability to solve great problems such as those facing us now: new sources and conservation of energy; building materials and protection from the elements; new modes of transportation; conserving and remediating the environment; new medical technologies, communication technologies, and, yes, the possibility of returning to the Moon and exploring Mars, so that we may expand our knowledge about our universe and our place upon it.

Unfortunately, this isn't the age of Apollo, which inspired a bumper crop of engineers and scientists. We are not prepared to solve those problems as rapidly as we should, or to create the new technologies that will form the basis of next-generation prosperity. Without the educated scientists and engineers, it will simply not happen. Without prepared K-12 students, it is even less likely. Fewer than 50 percent of our state's high-school students are meeting science and math standards.

Washington state ranks nearly last among all states in the amount of science taught in the fourth grade: 20 percent of the teachers teach less than one hour per week. Consider that the United States now ranks 22nd among all nations in science and math scores, and that Washington state — though it ranks fourth among states in the demand for engineers — ranks 33rd in the production of engineers.

Other nations in Asia as well as India are graduating many more engineers than all of Canada and the United States combined. This is not the equation for solving our state or national challenges — or creating a future of prosperity.

Let us set a goal: to make Washington state No. 1 in math and science in the nation within 10 years, and that these scores exceed even those of the highest-rated nations internationally.

Teamwork, difficult decisions and commitment will be required of all our leaders to achieve this goal — especially as we set priorities in this economic climate. The solution stool has many legs: teachers, parents, government agencies, nonprofits and policymakers. Each day we delay, is a day that other 9-year-old boys or girls may see their dreams slip from their grasp and the nation loses the benefit of their talents.

While the major decisions are being made, there is much we can do now. We can provide students with "hands on" opportunities for science and math experiences at our STEM-related cultural institutions, we can support school science fairs and provide competitive challenges, we can provide professional math and science development to teachers, we can educate parents about STEM careers, and we can provide positive media exposure to the scientists and engineers who work in our communities every day.

There are many organizations within Washington, including museums and science centers that represent the Informal Science Education sector, that are poised to support this goal. If not now, when?

Bonnie Dunbar is president and CEO of The Museum of Flight. She is a retired NASA astronaut.

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