5 Lessons from Boy and Girl Geniuses

June 26th, 2012

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This month, American students received another dismal grade as one-third of eighth graders failed to score a basic knowledge of science in the National Assessment of Educational Performance exam. The President and business leaders across the country have warned that America risks forfeiting its historic economic edge in technology and innovation unless we improve science knowledge among students.

But with policymakers wringing their hands over America falling behind, perhaps there are lessons Washington can learn from the boy and girl geniuses who met this spring to be honored by the Society for Science and the Public. These 40 American high school seniors won the right to compete for scholarships in the National Science Talent Search sponsored by Intel. In a blind application, nearly 2,000 contestants submitted original research to a panel of experts who narrowed the field down to 40 finalists that came to the National Geographic Society for an intensive review of their work.

The quality of the scholarship is breathtaking. One 17-year old developed a new method to detect buried landmines. Another created a photosensitizer to kill cancer cells without toxic radiation. An 18-year old submitted a novel prototype to remove nanoparticle contaminants from water. These 40 young minds could possibly reshape our economy, health, and environment for decades to come. But what can they teach Washington?

First, immigration is imperative. A stunning 13 of the forty finalists were not born in America – an incomprehensible ratio given that the overwhelming majority of American school kids were born here. Winners came from Honduras, China, Russia, India, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. In the 20th century, 54 million people immigrated to the United States and helped America win two world wars, a cold war, and build a middle class that remains the envy of the world. Yet in this century, we are still mired in a debate over the benefits of immigration. These kids make clear that the U.S. must remain a global magnet for talent.

Second, Barbie blew it. Sixteen of 40 finalists are girls. While that is not quite half, it is up significantly from the nine who were winners 20 years ago. The belief that girl brains may not be cut out for math – perpetuated by Talking Barbie (“Math is hard!”) and foot-in-mouth former Harvard President Larry Summers – could not be more wrong. In education, girls are now out-sprinting boys, comprising 60% of new college graduates, as well as significantly more advanced degrees. It seems likely that in the near future, girls will surpass boys in math and science, and if encouraged, will be the principal contributor to American ingenuity. Maybe GI Joe should encourage boys to attend academic boot camp in order to catch up.

Third, culture counts. Twenty-six finalists are Asian. Based on their relative size within the student population, only two of the finalists should have been Asian. No one says that American schools aren’t good enough to create the best lawyers in the world, so maybe America’s lack of success in the science, tech, and math fields has to do with the expectations and desires of parents. Many successful families push their high-achieving kids into fields like law, business, and finance. Perhaps there is even some snobbery directed toward those who wear lab coats; toil before a computer; or engineer, calculate, and splice things. In high-achieving Asian families, parents seem to be encouraging their children’s fascination with science and numbers rather than redirecting it to other fields.

Fourth, music matters. Twenty-two were stand-out musicians; playing in orchestras, composing their own music, even winning awards. In our hyper-ventilating testing atmosphere, softer skills like music, art, and physical education are on the chopping block in times of tight budgets. But studies show that these softer skills complement and enhance core competencies in math, reading, analytics, and comprehension. They teach people to work in teams and overcome obstacles to achieve success. Cutting off programs that don’t directly relate to standardized testing may ultimately lower test scores.

Fifth, public schools can produce. Thirty-six attended public schools. There is no doubt that our public educational system needs improvement. Some lower income schools are dropout factories; many middle income schools turn out mediocrity. But there is also tremendous success coming out of many public schools. What are these winner schools doing to motivate students, involve parents, unleash the best in teachers, and create a culture of learning and achievement? Can it be replicated in schools across the country, income spectrum, and across cultural and racial differences?

These forty winners are the future of America. One may produce a breakthrough that ends our reliance on fossil fuels. Another may find a cure for Alzheimer’s. The sky is the limit. But in the meantime, there are lessons we can take from them today to improve education for the 50 million kids in school now.

Jim Kessler is the Senior Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a moderate think tank in Washington, D.C.