Powelson: Alexander, Gordon focused on prosperity

Posted on March 25, 2007

Apart from the partisan fights in Congress, there are key members of both parties working on a long-term goal for boosting the country's brainpower and keeping the U.S. globally competitive. In the past two weeks, Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Murfreesboro, has used his chairmanship of the Science and Technology Committee to focus another public hearing on experts' ideas for legislation to improve the teaching of math, science and engineering and broaden scholarships in these areas to those who would teach for a while after graduation. He has been working with Democrats and Republicans on solutions. Also, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been working with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., on restoring $1 billion to the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science and to get the Senate to plan for passage of a science education improvements bill. Bingaman is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. High-tech industries and many universities are worried about the number of students seeking science education, graduating and then lending their skills to teaching or innovations in science and engineering. The University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt are working with a group of about 270 companies, universities and organizations to build more public and government support for increased investment in research in this country and on programs for improving science and math education. China and India, for example, are graduating many times more scientists and engineers than the United States. With wages also much lower in those countries, compared to the United States, it is easy to see the fear that U.S. companies will employ increasing numbers of skilled workers overseas and lower numbers here. That could mean that, years from now, a large number of U.S. workers would be able to find jobs here that pay less than what the previous generation received. Standards of living could decline for many Americans. Alexander focused on education as the state's governor, working for higher pay for the better-skilled teachers. Then he was the UT system's president and U.S. secretary of education under the earlier President Bush. The ideas touted in this country would use incentives to attract many more students into the science fields. For example, in Tennessee, Alexander envisions giving up to 400 students every year four-year scholarships each worth up to $10,000 a year so they could earn bachelor's degrees in science, math, engineering or technology and also earn teaching certification. Gordon has said that more than half of the math teachers in the state and elsewhere have neither a major nor a certificate to teach math, and 92 percent of the physical science teachers have neither a major nor a certificate to teach that subject. If one is not skilled in the subject he or she is teaching, how can their students learn the subjects at their maximum potential? Legislation also proposes summer academies for math and science teachers. Perhaps Oak Ridge National Laboratory and various universities across the state would host one- or two-week programs. There's also a need to train math and science teachers to teach well at the advanced-placement course level in high school. Also, Alexander favors internships for middle- and high-school students in high-tech fields to get them involved more in science education. ORNL, university and other research facilities could be a big part of this. This is another national challenge like energy independence where the big-ideas people have to focus often on both next year and the next decade to help keep the United States a major power in its economy, its technology and in life-changing research. Gordon and Alexander have been spending extra time on this challenge the past couple of years, working with science and technology and education experts. Momentum for major reforms seems to be building.