The World Is Changing: Will Education Change With It?

Science keeps advancing, but America's students still lag behind.

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Tim Gott is the director of the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky.

Petaflop, Facebook, and nanotubes. Three simple examples of why STEM education and initiatives are incredibly important. Each of these phenomena is relatively new in the world's collective memory. For instance, petaflop will be common for any computer science person, if not now, certainly in the very near future. It refers to a thousand trillion operations.

To put that in perspective, multiply 4 by 5. If you answered 20, you have correctly completed one flop. Now if you were to continue to generate operations at a rate of one flop per second, it would take you approximately 12 days to reach a megaflop or a million operations. A gigaflop (a billion) would take around 32 years. The next iteration of a thousand more would be a teraflop (a trillion) coming in around 32,000 years. So a petaflop would be a thousand more, taking 32 million years to complete at a flop per second. However, a few of the fastest computers on the planet are capable of over a petaflop per second. What does that mean? For one thing, it means the world has changed.

Another major global event is Facebook. What most people don't know is that it is one of the largest statistical databases in the world. Every time someone clicks "like" or adds some info to a profile, that person is adding another datum to one of the largest psychological and sociological networks every created. Mathematicians can analyze the plethora of information and see patterns of choices that will impact economical, political, and cultural decisions in substantial ways. Many companies are already mining this data set and are using the information to develop major business initiatives.

One other new frontier is nanotechnology. Nano refers to one-billionth of something. Look at a ruler with millimeters on it. Divide one millimeter into a million pieces. That is the world of nanotechnology. One area of research is in the use of nanotubes. These are microscopic carbon instruments that can be used as vehicles to transport various elements or compounds into cells. One use would be to place nanotubes directly into cancer cells so that medicine could attack the nucleus more securely. Scientists, using electron microscopes and newer iterations, can now explore the miniscule like it was visible to the naked eye.

These three scenarios reveal something substantial. Who is preparing the next generations to interact fully with this technologically evolving world? For all practical purposes, the curriculum in the P-12 world has not drastically changed since the 1800s. To be fair, there are some wonderful initiatives around the country, but they are just pockets of excellence in a world of mediocrity. Yet another question arises: What will happen if we just continue with our status quo?

As an educator with 27 years of experience in public schools, I have experience the whole range of quality in our institutions. It is possible to pull our antiquated system into a 21st-century context. We must. The crux is a substantial shift into what could be called the 4 Cs: critical, creative, collaborative, and compassionate thinking.

The STEM fields demands these skills and provide one of the best learning environments for the development of these skills. Our students need to learn the fundamentals; however, it must be, to emphasize the word again, in context. Where will they get the chance to increase their vocabulary to even know what a petaflop is? How can they gain the capability to explore, analyze, innovate, and lead in new arenas such as social media or scientific research? The STEM world is creating exponential growth and demand. Who will be prepared to step into these careers and opportunities? If we want U.S. students to be among those who do, we must continue to support STEM initiatives and establish more educational avenues for our young people to become equipped and prepared to meet the ever-growing challenges and possibilities.