Industrialists, educators gather in DC for NAS convocation

Representatives from industry, K-12 education and higher education from almost all 50 states gathered at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, to attend a convocation marking the one-year anniversary of the release of the benchmark  NAS report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.

That report focused particularly on K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); higher education; research; and promoting an environment that fosters innovation.

The October convocation centered on those key action areas. Its purpose was to bring leaders in industry, government, research and  education together with representatives from the federal government  to exchange ideas about initiatives at federal, state and local levels to strengthen national competitiveness.

Some progress has already been made. In his 2006 State of the Union  address to the nation on January 31st, President George W Bush announced an American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), a ten-year, $136 billion undertaking that would double the federal commitment to basic scientific research in the physical sciences and train tens of thousands of new math and science teachers.

Just prior to the convocation, Majority Senate Leader Bill Frist  (R-TN)and Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced a new Senate bill (S.3936) to address most of the recommendations outlined in the NAS report. The bill will authorize $73 billion in federal spending for science and technology over five years, comparable to the ACI.

The morning session featured comments from representatives from Congress, the respective presidents of the NAS and National Academy of Engineering, US Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and Norman Augustine, who chaired the NAS committee that produced the Gathering Storm report.

Several speakers urged the attendees to not rely solely on national  federal efforts, but also to take local action, especially when it comes to education. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) emphasized that the Senate legislation is an authorization bill, not an appropriations bill. “This legislation only provides incentives to strengthen math and science education,” he said. “It’s up to the states, universities and local school districts to step up to the plate and translate those incentives into real opportunities for students, and for change.”

He continued, “The task of securing our economic future will require sustained effort at every level of society: local, state and  federal,” said. “Without such an effort, at all levels, we will fail to capitalize on the exceptional intellectual strength of our top scientists and engineers.”

Among the featured morning speakers was Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation and inventor of the Segway transporter and the wearable insulin pump. A strong proponent of STEM education, Kamen also founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition  of Science and Technology), which sponsors such events as high-school robotics competitions and middle-school Lego competitions. He closed by quoting William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

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