As I was sitting last night in the Everett Events Center for a town hall meeting on the new UW North Puget Sound campus, I was struck by the steady parade of representatives from local businesses who came up to the microphone to describe their dire need for more college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math fields. As the evening progressed, I realized that at midnight, we would reach the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik — a defining moment in the 20th century, at least for American education.
Although I was too young at the time to even fathom the significance of the event, the Sputnik phenomenon is certainly credited with inspiring and motivating millions of baby-bommers to embark on educational and professional careers in science and technology. President John Kennedy’s call to place a man on the moon by the end of the 1960′s also played a strong part as well. Our current position as a world leader in innovation and research owes much to these historical events.
But we all know that our global leadership position is in serious jeopardy. Many other nations are investing much more in their research universities than the U.S. and are producing unprecedented numbers of baccalaureate and graduate students in science and technology fields. Local and national businesses continue to report their inability to find sufficient qualified workers to fill a growing number of jobs that require academic background in these areas, and competition for foreign engineers and scientists has also grown increasingly difficult.
There are many ways to try and address this problem and clearly the Governor and the state legislature are working on many of them. I can’t help thinking though that what we really need is a Sputnik-like event to shock this state and the nation out of its technological complacency. I’m certainly not arguing for a return of the Cold War and the mistrust and fear of the Soviet Union which most certainly heightened the impact of Sputnik. However, it also seems clear that reports, conferences and speeches have not yet proven sufficient to tackle this major 21st century educational challenge.