Commentary: U.S. must focus on science and math education to spur innovation

Congress can insert "Buy American" clauses into every piece of pork and stimulus package that flows from its bureaucratic ballpoints, but if U.S. companies don't have the talent available to develop and produce the innovations America needs to remain a technological leader, laws don't mean much.

We shouldn't depend on scientists and engineers imported from China and India any more than we depend on foreign-made technology.

A perceived national security threat from the Soviets triggered one of this country's most notable examples of quickly moving from scientific research to hands-on results: The Apollo program put men on the moon just eight years after President John F. Kennedy issued his dramatic May 25, 1961, challenge to a special joint session of Congress.

As an August 2009 Business Week column by Adrian Slywotzky noted, Apollo not only provided a short-term boost for jobs but also "sped up development of key computer and communications technology and unleashed a host of innovations in fuel cells, water purification, freeze-drying of food and digital image processing used in CAT scans and MRIs."

Demitris Kouris, the new dean of science and engineering at TCU, said it's worth reminding people that innovations from decades earlier helped cushion the United States during a series of recessions in the 1980s.

"What saved the U.S. when the Japanese started buying everything was the result of work that was done in the '60s and '70s that translated into products people wanted -- computer Internet and cellphone telephony," Kouris said.

"It takes years for an idea developed in laboratories and enhanced through innovation and hard work to turn into products. That gap is sometimes of 10 or 20 years," Kouris said. "Right now we need something like that. A breakthrough in energy, for example, will not only solve short-term problems but also create new industries."

In America's "golden age" for science and engineering -- from the 1900s to the early '60s -- there was a national urgency about turning out physics and physical-oriented engineers and scientists, said Karl A. Komatsu, president of Fort Worth-based Komatsu Architecture.

Texas certainly benefited -- can you say Johnson Space Center, Lockheed Martin, Texas Instruments, RadioShack and a litany of high-tech companies involved in oil and gas exploration?

But where's that urgency now? And even if Texas experienced a collective epiphany that educating highly literate, skilled science, technology, engineering and math talent should be a major statewide initiative, is the state's education system equipped to accept that challenge?

Not as it's structured today, and not without outside pressure.

Texas' dropout rates are disturbingly high. Alliance for Excellent Education figures for North Texas, an area that includes Dallas, Tarrant and 12 surrounding counties, show that 32 percent of students didn't graduate from high school in four years and with a regular diploma.

Ours is not a world in which children can catch up when they reach middle or high school.

"I look not only at what our current situation is but where we are going to be going forward," former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said. "The answers don't lie just with government.

"I say this not meaning to be critical of elected or appointed leaders; they all have a lot of responsibility -- defined responsibilities -- of running the system. What we're talking about is changing the system," Barr said. "They've got to tread water, and we're talking about a strategy to drain the swamp."

Training and development in math and science can't start early enough. Waiting until high school to expose students to STEM curriculum and career opportunities is too late. But that technical training must build on a strong liberal arts foundation. Ours is not a post-literate world where complex concepts can be conveyed through pictographs and emoticons. Critical thinking skills and the mastery of advanced theory demand high-level literacy.

Overcoming the community's education-to-employment shortcomings demands a response from all the groups concerned -- academics, business owners, parents, elected officials, nongovernmental organizations, chambers of commerce and civic organizations. And it will take more than just nodding heads saying, "We know there's a problem."

We've done enough tsk-tsking in Texas and pointing fingers at who's to blame for how we got here.

It's time to get out of our single-focus silos and organize into an alliance that will build what author and social scientist Ed Gordon calls a community talent-creation system.

We don't have to reinvent the wheel. Danville, Ill.; Santa Ana, Calif.; Mansfield, Ohio, and North Carolina and North Dakota have created successful and vibrant community-based organizations that leverage the strengths found in a shared vision and collaboration of effort.

If they can do it, North Texas can.

The local dialogue began two weeks ago when Gordon threw down the gauntlet to an audience of local business and community leaders at a Workplace Literacy Summit sponsored by the Rotary Club of Fort Worth.

The biggest challenge now is finding the person or organization willing to keep the conversation going, Barr said.

"Somebody has to be the keeper of the flame, the flywheel that continues the momentum," he said.

I happen to know there are plenty of great conversationalists in the Rotary Club and the chamber of commerce. What do you say, folks?

The hardest part of any journey is the first step, but when a tiger is growling at your back, it's best to get moving.


Jill "J.R." Labbe is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.