WASHINGTON — In an era when the winners and losers in the global economy are determined increasingly by their IT and scientific industries, the United States is falling dangerously behind on basic science, technology, education and math education, President Obama cautioned on Monday.
In an address in the East Room of the White House this afternoon, Obama spoke to students, teachers and business leaders about the importance of improving education in the so-called STEM subjects, announcing two new initiatives to further that objective.
Obama said that the chief executives from leading tech firms and other businesses that depend on engineers and scientists to fill out the ranks of their workforces are launching a series of online videos highlighting the STEM-oriented opportunities at their companies.
Additionally, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the Defense Department that grew out of the agency responsible for the early development of the Internet, is launching an outreach campaign that aims to “inspire” children to pursue science and engineering studies.
“Despite the importance of inspiring and educating our children in these fields, in recent years the fact is we’ve been outpaced by a lot of our competitors,” Obama said, citing a recent study that rated U.S. 15-year-olds 21st in the world in science aptitude and 25th in math.
“We will move from the middle to the top,” he said.
Obama delivered his remarks this afternoon after touring the exhibits at the White House science fair, comprised of students’ winning entries from a wide array of competitions in the STEM subjects from around the country.
With 25 students, many wearing medals for their winning projects, seated on risers behind him, Obama stressed his goal of elevating the profile of STEM education.
“We’ve brought championship sports teams to the White House to celebrate their victories — I’ve had the Lakers here, I’ve had the Saints here, the Crimson Tide — I thought we ought to do the same thing for winners of science fairs,” he said, eliciting a lengthy ovation from the audience.
“When you win first place in a science fair, nobody’s rushing the field and dumping Gatorade all over your head. But in many ways our future depends on what happens in those contests, what happens when a young person is engaged in conducting an experiment, writing a piece of software, solving a hard math problem or designing a new gadget.”
In the spirit of lending presidential gravitas to the pursuit of scientific inquiry, the Obama has taped a segment for the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters,” whose co-hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage were on hand for today’s remarks. Obama’s segment is due to air Dec. 8.
Also in attendance at today’s event were Bill Nye, the former host of Disney’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” Subra Suresh, the new director of the National Science Foundation, who was sworn in this morning, and other administration officials, including federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Companies in the IT sector have long advocated for policy reforms to expand the visa program that permits highly skilled, foreign-born workers to stay in the country, citing a competitive disadvantage when those workers, many of whom come to the United States to go to school, return to their native countries and take jobs with rival companies.
But while the long-running battle over the H1-B visa program is tied to broader debates over immigration reform and issues of global competition, tech firms have also been ramping up their involvement in efforts to produce better-educated domestic workers through education initiatives.
Just last month, Obama announced the formation of an organization called Change the Equation, a public-private partnership aimed at advancing STEM education spearheaded by five tech luminaries, including former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and pioneering astronaut Sally Ride. The effort is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and counts many of the country’s leading tech firms as members, including Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Dell.