Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Defense of Students

The news media is doing what it does best: This week they've been running with the bad news and hardly mentioning the good. Yesterday the results of 2007's Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released, comparing U.S. 4th and 8th grade students with their peers in over 35 other countries. The results weren't optimal, but stories like this one in the Washington Post tended to focus on the bad news rather than the good. The big story that got missed: The winners of the country's most prestigious science and math competition were announced on Monday.

The TIMSS report shows that over the last decade, math scores in the United States have jumped considerably, while science scores have remained largely unchanged. The United States didn't top any of the rankings, but remains comfortably above average. Much of the math improvement came as a result of the stronger emphasis placed there by the Department of Education over the last several years. If there was a similar renewed focus on the sciences, there's no question the U.S. could work its way even farther up the ladder.

The United States is chock full of extraordinarily talented math and science students who will be at the forefront of their fields in only a few years. The Siemens Competition is where these great minds shine brightest. Though the press coverage surrounding the winners was much more muted, it shows that the sciences are still very strong in the country. The winners represented the cutting edge of nearly every scientific discipline from optics to genetics to algebra and beyond. The research done by these high school students is on par with some of our nation's best professionals.

Though some of this work seems intimidating, it's important to remember that discoveries can really be made by anyone. A fun example is a group of college undergrads in the Netherlands unexpectedly discovered an entire planet last week. They plugged a search program they crafted into the OGLE Database of stars, and were amazed to discover the tell tale signs of a massive planet orbiting one of them.

Discoveries like this can come from anywhere because today's students will be tomorrow's experts. The drive to explore and understand the world is fundamental not only in the United States but throughout the planet. The somewhat mixed results of the TIMSS report shouldn't necessarily be seen as a condemnation of American students or their school system, but as an opportunity to get involved and challenge them to achieve. Broadening the appeal of science in schools everywhere is critical to help bring the country into the 21st century.

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