Ask Dr. H: "How Can Kids Apply Their Ingenuity to Global Challenges?"

[Ed. Note: In this week’s "Ask the President's Science Advisor," OSTP Director Dr. John P. Holdren answers an e-mail asking how the Obama Administration is encouraging children to apply their ingenuity in addressing the grand challenges that face our country and the world. To have your question considered for this feature, e-mail your short query to AskDrH@ostp.gov or tweet @whitehouseostp using the hashtag #AskDrH. The selected question will be posted in the blog with Dr. Holdren's answer.]

Dr. Holdren:

I run a science research lab in Detroit for young inventors. The program is called ECOTEK. Our students work on projects involving international issues that have been taken up by the United Nations. To see some of the work we have done, please visit www.ecotek-us.com. We also have our own television show called YoungXplorers which can be accessed at http://www.ecotek-us.com/youngxplorers/index.htm.

My question is: "What is the White House doing to encourage kids to apply their innovation and inventions to solve global issues?"

Keith, Detroit

Kids are natural problem solvers, and there is no reason why they can’t play a valuable role in solving “grownup” global issues. That’s one reason that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education—including not just classroom learning but hands-on doing and making—is a top priority for this Administration. And it is a reason that this Administration has committed to a White House science fair this year, to showcase some of the more creative and sophisticated approaches to problem solving being taken by students across the country.

Recognizing that the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, the Obama Administration has launched and is supporting a number of crucial initiatives, including Race to the Top (which provides crucial education funds to states, in part on the basis of their commitments to improve STEM education); Educate to Innovate (which, recognizing that the government cannot fix STEM education alone, has attracted more than a half a billion dollars in contributions from corporations, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies to support activities that encourage students to study and pursue careers in science and engineering); National Lab Day (a nationwide initiative to build local communities of support that foster ongoing collaborations among volunteers, students, and educators to improve school science labs and their creative uses); and National STEM design competitions that develop entertaining ways to engage kids in scientific inquiry.

This Administration is also working to extend STEM education to groups underrepresented in the sciences and engineering, including women and girls, and has harnessed the power of media and community volunteers to reach millions of students with a message about the value of science and technology through such events as last fall’s Astronomy Night on the White House Lawn, which brought 150 middle-schoolers onto the South Lawn to look through telescopes at the Moon, stars, and planets.

But I want to address in particular your point about the importance of encouraging kids “to apply their innovation and inventions to solve global issues.” One of the best programs I can think of that is doing that today is the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program, with which your ECOTEK program appears to be affiliated. The program—administered by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the State Department—is a hands-on, primary and secondary school-based, science and education program that facilitates collaboration among students, teachers, and scientists around the world as they perform inquiry-based investigations of the environment and Earth systems. The program gets kid outdoors and into the field to make actual environmental measurements, such as air temperature, waterway acidity, and sunlight intensity. Since its launch in 1995, the program has grown to connect—in an enormous data-sharing network—more than 20,000 schools in 112 countries.

Students in GLOBE schools, along with the 50,000 teachers that GLOBE has trained in those schools, have collected and uploaded more than 20 million environmental and climate measurements in the past 15 years—a data set that is openly available for collaborative scientific research by students and professional scientists alike.

In the next few years, GLOBE will be focusing in particular on the goal of enhancing climate education with a focus on global warming, the carbon and energy footprint, climate and human health, and ecosystems, agriculture, and biodiversity.

Who knows? The next big breakthrough in understanding global climate change could come from this global network of teachers and students.

For more details about GLOBE, see http://www.globe.gov.

John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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