Investing in the future

Published 4:48 pm Sunday, September 7, 2008

As children across the Commonwealth headed back to school this week, I thought of my own four children and how it seems as if it were only yesterday that my wife and I were sending them off to school.

Back-to-school time is more than just a highlight across our nation; it is a symbol of the importance of education in our society and in our children’s lives.

Largely, Americans understand the benefit of education and the impact it has on our economic success and global competitiveness, especially in the fields of science and technology. Science and technology fields are a huge economic engine for the United States, and their role in our global society has increased dramatically over the past decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs requiring science, engineering or technical training will increase 24 percent between 2004 and 2014 to 6.3 million.

And for the first time, we have opportunities to use the benefits of technology to make considerable breakthroughs to some of our biggest challenges in energy, health care and disease research. Our ability to meet these opportunities is directly related to how well we empower our students to be involved in math and science and how successful we are in providing the tools necessary to excel.

Many don’t realize how far the U.S. is falling behind when it comes to math and science education. The U.S. secretary of education has testified before Congress that our 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 developed nations in math literacy and problem solving. America’s share of the world’s science and engineering doctorates is predicted to fall to 15 percent by 2010. This is concerning, considering over the past decade countries like China and India are nearly doubling the degrees they are awarding in higher education, many of which are in math, science and engineering fields.

If we continue to push our math and science education aside without giving it the proper attention and emphasis it deserves, we run the risk of severely weakening our competitive edge as a nation. We may not see the effects right away, but our children will. One of the most important things we can do for our students today is to encourage their interest and knowledge in math and science.

Renewing this interest in math and science will take a combined effort of parents, educators, and lawmakers. First and foremost, parents must encourage math and science learning at home. Our children’s education is not something that stops when they leave the classroom. Not only is it important for parents to motivate their children to learn at home, it is also important that parents stress the value of gaining an education. For hands-on approaches, many Web sites offer ways that you can encourage your child’s curiosity in math and science.

As a nation, we must be looking for ways to level the playing field when it comes to opportunities in math and science. The “digital divide” in our nation — the gap between those individuals with access to digital technology and those without — must be closed, and that starts in our educational institutions.

There is no reason we shouldn’t provide our children with every opportunity to excel in the fields of math and science, regardless of where they attend school. Three years ago, I introduced a bill to establish a new Minority Serving Institution grant program to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges bridge the digital divide. This summer I was happy to watch as that bill was included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act and signed into law by the president. There are six HBCUs — and consequentially thousands of students — in Virginia who will benefit from this important grant program.

Additionally, we must be looking for ways to reward and encourage private-sector participation in math and science education. This summer, I introduced the New Manhattan Project for Energy Independence, which challenges the U.S. to reach 50 percent energy independence in 10 years and 100 percent energy independence in 20 years. To achieve this goal, the New Manhattan Project will bring together the best and brightest students and researchers in our nation in a competitive format to research one of seven established energy goals and will award significant prizes to any group, school, team, or company who reaches the goal. Incentives like these will not only help us to reach our nation’s biggest challenges, but they will energize a whole new generation of young people to go into fields of math, science and engineering.

Our economy depends on the skill level, adaptability, and diverse knowledge of our workforce. When the world is moving quickly towards new technology, our students can’t afford to fall behind in math and science. We each have a role to play. As your member of Congress, I am continually looking for ways to encourage math and science in our educational institutions. As the new school year begins and our children head back to school, I encourage you to get involved in developing your child’s math and science skills. The future of our nation depends on it.