Because of my experience as an astronaut almost 40 years ago, I am often called on to recount that small piece of history and to reflect on the course of the U.S. space program since then. Not one of us involved in the early days could have predicted in 1962 the trajectories of progress that have brought us to this point in time. Far from conquering space, we instead found boundless possibilities to expand our knowledge, utilizing discoveries in space to improve the quality of life on earth. We continue to be on the threshold of discoveries in space, certain only that the more we learn the more there is to know.
Our exploration in space is not unique; in fact, it is a metaphor for the scope of learning in the fields of math and science that await the next generation. Knowledge itself is growing exponentially. The information age—the Internet, instant communication, and the globalization of our economy, our languages, and our culture—has already transformed every aspect of our lives. Just as the new frontiers of space presented another generation with phenomenal educational challenges, the information age demands we revolutionize our educational system if we are going to fully utilize the technological progression in our path.
Yet, even before we can begin to accommodate the dramatic advances to come, we have a great deal of repair work to do in our contemporary classrooms. By every measure, U.S. schoolchildren are falling behind in mathematics and science. Moreover, they lose interest in those subjects in the later grades. Consequently, we currently have intense shortages of math and science teachers. It is a problem that will only worsen as the school population continues to grow uninterrupted through the next century.
Without more and better math teachers—teachers who are skilled to accommodate the explosion in new knowledge—today’s students will be ill-equipped to assume their role as the visionaries, experts, producers, and innovators the world will need to solve the problems and dream the dreams that will define America’s future. It would mean the role of the U.S. as the foremost leader in technology could diminish in this century, a consequence that would imperil our economy, our way of life, our national defense.
That need not happen if we take steps now to both accommodate today’s educational demands and at the same time plan for the dynamism of tomorrow. Moreover, we know precisely what we must do. For the last year, I was pleased to serve as chairman of the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century. This blue-ribbon panel, commissioned by U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, assembled 25 members and eight ex-officio members from the highest ranks of government, academia, business, and civic leadership, to consider how the U.S. might best prepare students academically in math and science.
The commission’s report, “Before It’s Too Late,” outlines a three-step strategy to improve math and science teaching immediately as well as building the foundation for long-term progress. We must create new professional development opportunities that update and upgrade knowledge of math and science teachers; we must broaden the pool of new, highly qualified math and science teachers to meet current and expected teacher shortages in these fields; and we must retain qualified math and science teachers through a combination of federal, state, and local financial and professional incentives.
This is not an optional challenge for this nation, in my view. Building and maintaining a world-class educational system that serves all of our children is as much a civic duty as voting. It is a responsibility that belongs to everyone—educators, elected officials, business and civic leaders, good citizens. Our earlier progress in space was not happenstance; it flowed from the visionary intelligence of our scientific pioneers and came about only because of an unrelenting and generous commitment of our collective energies and resources. That same spirit is no less needed now, if we are going to conquer the challenges of the information age. It is a daunting task and a noble goal. Let us also make it a proud adventure.
None of the dreams, wishes, predictions, and precautions we present in this issue will be remotely possible unless they are left in the care of future generations of visionary technologists, brilliant scientists, and worldly scholars. Our legacy, as denoted by the following essayists, should be to make education the root from which our future grows. They speak of the need to strengthen our educational process, to better focus our teaching skills, to incorporate interactive learning tools to work with students rather than for them. And, above all, such educational measures must be available to every student regardless of where in the world they are located. Indeed, the very future of this world hangs on their love for learning and hunger for knowledge.
Figure. Seventy-five percent of the land mass and oceans are “International Parks.” People live in luxurious one-mile high-rises above nature, resembling the golden domes of Cibola, or like those in Xanadu—geodesic domes underwater. Transparent spherical helmets resembling halos will serve as virtual alter egos or gaurdians.—Jean-François Podevin, illustrator —Jean-François Podevin