Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

“Making a Difference” for the Future

Source: NSTA Reports

By U.S. Senator Ted Kaufman

October 1, 2010

BP’s 24/7 oil spill camera allowed millions of young people across the country to watch an environmental disaster unfold in close-up from a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.  Horrible as the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon crisis has been, it continues to be an opportunity for the next generation to understand the potential for “making a difference” through the pursuit of an education focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM.  


The oil spill already has inspired clean-up oriented science lessons across the nation.  During a summer camp project called “Sludge City” in my home state of Delaware, fourth- through sixth-graders were challenged to remove oil from water (in this case, water that has been polluted with vegetable oil and other substances), using such common materials as felt, coffee filters, gravel, cotton balls and sand.


The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog highlighted a similar project in Manhattan.  High school students taking part in a “National Lab Day” project learned how to clean and purify contaminated water from a local college professor.  The professor – a chemical engineer with expertise in pollution prevention and treatment – hoped to use his hands-on presentation to encourage more young people to pursue an engineering education. 


These Delaware and New York students are getting a small taste of how STEM professionals face some of the most difficult challenges as they work to clean up the Gulf coast.  It’s this type of creative, real-world application of everyday science that we need more of in K-12 classrooms across the country.


Young people today talk about wanting to “make a difference” with their lives.  The Gulf spill is a clear illustration of how the pursuit of STEM education can lead to just that.  Ideas about how to stop an oil leak of this kind, protect the beaches, clean the marshes and minimize the environmental damage all involve engineering skills.  It’s also a lesson in how engineers must ensure safe practices and contingency planning for when disaster strikes.  What is more, we can hope that these lessons are teaching our youngest generation why the U.S. simply must achieve energy independence – and that their young minds can help discover important advances that will lead us to that day.


But before these young people can pursue STEM careers, they must have access to a quality K-12 STEM education.  At a time when the performance of our young people lags behind many nations on international assessments of mathematics and science, engineering education is a critically important medium for sparking student interest in STEM.  According to the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council, K-12 engineering education has the potential to improve student learning and achievement in science and mathematics, increase awareness about what engineers do and of engineering as a potential career, and boost students’ technological literacy. 


The truth is that we are only just beginning to see the ramifications of what will go down as one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history.  It’s also clear that STEM skills will be in great demand to fix various problems related to the oil spill for many years to come – not to mention the role STEM professionals will play in charting an accelerated course to a clean energy future in the wake of the spill.


As clean-up of the millions of gallons of oil that poured into the Gulf of Mexico continues and the nation enters further into an energy “rethink,” I’m reminded of another turning point in history – the dawn of the “Space Race,” with Sputnik and President Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon.  President Kennedy inspired many students of the Cold War era to pursue STEM-related careers.  The BP oil spill may be an ugly call to action that encourages the next generation of scientists and engineers to solve our energy dependence on oil.

U.S. Senator Edward E. “Ted” Kaufman, D-Del., is a mechanical engineer by training.  As the only serving Senator who worked as an engineer, Ted has advocated for a renewed emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education to meet the increasing challenges of a competitive global economy.

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