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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Blazing a Bold Trail for Education"
2007 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program
Teachers Recognition Dinner
June 24, 2007

Good evening. Thank you, Commissioner Michael Galiazzo, for the kind introduction. Let me add my welcome to all of our scholars, teachers, the Commission, and other special guests.

More than 2,700 of our nation's best and brightest were nominated to be Presidential Scholars this year. But, just 141 of you actually received this honor. Needless to say, I am proud to be part of this celebration with the crème de la crème. No pun intended because we’re finishing our dessert and coffee.

It is a privilege to be part of this evening's festivities to recognize the teachers who inspired the awardees. We salute your support and inspiration that helped make their achievement possible. You have notably chosen to focus part of your time and creative talents on the vital task of nurturing the next generation.

One of my favorite teachers used to say, "There are no traffic jams along the extra mile." And over the years, I've learned that the extra mile might not even be paved -- or imagined. That wisdom was the motivation for the title of my remarks this evening, "Blazing a Bold Trail for Education."

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw captured it best when he said, "Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

At NSF, we look at such uncharted terrain as opportunity. We continually focus on the frontier -- constantly looking for the "shock of the new" that was once believed to be impossible. For example, NSF-supported research led to the development of the Internet, Web browsers, and Doppler radar—to name a few of our claims to fame.

Without NSF, we wouldn't be able to go on-line, Google the weather, and come up with a real-time weather map. And, I hear that's really important to those prone to bad hair days.

It's fair to say that NSF has helped make America what it is today. Above all, our mission is to catalyze ideas; solve fundamental research questions; and to help educate that person in math or science who might find that next Matrix-like technology.

For the world over, education and knowledge are becoming the most precious commodities in the 21st Century economy. During my recent travels to Korea, India, and China, I've seen this firsthand. A nation's present value in the world marketplace can no longer be measured by past standards. A nation's preeminence is now measured in terms of its intellectual resource. That's why I'm so glad that the Fox quiz game "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" first aired in the U.S.

Just a few years into this century, we are witnessing spectacular achievements in science and engineering: genomic medicine, nano-manufacturing, petascale computing, and green engineering among them.

For all of us, there can be little doubt that the conduct of science and engineering is also changing dramatically. Technology is growing more complex, and the speed of change underpinned by IT is mind-boggling.

Almost every year, our vehicles break speed records. We now build passenger trains that travel 270 miles an hour and rocket cars that break the speed of sound. And, let's not forget Harry Potter's Firebolt that allows him to catch the Golden Snitch.

Throughout history, the transmission of information moved slowly, taking weeks or even years, to move around the world.

Now, I'm being zapped instantly with B-F-Fs and T-T-Y-Ls from my grandchildren. I draw the line at R-O-F-L-ing, however. That's "rolling-on-the-floor-laughing," and I tell them that I'm just too old for that.

I remember when international phone calls were a really big deal. Instead of fretting about forgetting an international calling code, I now worry that one of grandkids will change the ring tone on my cell phone to "Hips Don’t Lie," and I won't be able to change it back.

We now have a world of unprecedented sharing at our fingertips. The best ideas and newest information can be shared with millions in an instant. Text messaging, You Tube, My Space, and blogs are the norm. Science and technology play an ever-expanding role in contemporary society.

In fact, in each of the past five decades, science and engineering jobs in the U.S. economy grew more rapidly than the overall civilian workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment in strictly defined S&E occupations will increase about 70% faster than the overall growth rate until 2012. After that, they may increase at an even faster rate.

Additionally, jobs not typically classified as "scientist" or "engineer" increasingly require some understanding of science and engineering. From 1993 to 2003, the number of S&E degree holders working in jobs not classified as S&E grew by two million. I'm proud to say that as the Director of the National Science Foundation, I'm officially one of those data points. Such employment trends—coupled with U.S. demographic shifts and global workforce mobility—remind us that we must train an all-inclusive scientifically savvy workforce.

The future workforce will rely heavily on people who can work together across disciplines and national borders, and who assimilate new knowledge and technology throughout their careers. The intellectual and economic vitality of our nation is also linked to the scientific and technological awareness of all of our citizens. Without this broad capacity, we can have neither innovation nor prosperity.

According to Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, 25% of Americans think that the sun revolves around the earth. Almost 60% believe lasers work by focusing sound waves. And, over 40% of Americans believe there is scientific justification for ESP—or "ESPN" if you've seen Lindsay Lohan's Mean Girls.

We are behind in ensuring that all citizens acquire basic science and engineering knowledge. As Ben Franklin reminded us long ago, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Globalization has delivered an imperative for the United States: either transform our educational system into one that readily, and steadily, produces workers that will advance economic prosperity and national momentum – or fall behind in global competition.

We need you to be a catalyst of change for other teachers, for citizens in your community, and for public officials. Your creativity and enthusiasm in the classroom can create ripples that grow until they reach a crescendo of change for the public.

Statesman and author Benjamin Disraeli said, "The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to the other his or her own."

As educators and scholars, your leadership role in sharing best practices and new ideas is to enable the youth in America to reach their full potential, not only for your schools, but for the future of our nation.

Again, it is a privilege to stand among you. I also realize, however, that I'm the person standing between you and your trail home. So, I will close now and again congratulate all of you! Thank you.