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7/24/2006
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Funding Innovation Where It's Incubated

For the kick-off session at its annual faculty summit in Redmond, Wash., last week, Microsoft convened a panel of tech leaders and educators to wax philosophic about hot IT topics of the day: declining federal research spending, job competition from India and China, and why the United States can't attract kids to math and science. There's been a lot of ink spilled about those shortcomings of American competitiveness lately. But this confab had an ace in the hole. Sitting on a stage between Mic

For the kick-off session at its annual faculty summit in Redmond, Wash., last week, Microsoft convened a panel of tech leaders and educators to wax philosophic about hot IT topics of the day: declining federal research spending, job competition from India and China, and why the United States can't attract kids to math and science. There's been a lot of ink spilled about those shortcomings of American competitiveness lately. But this confab had an ace in the hole.

Sitting on a stage between Microsoft exec Craig Mundie, the White House's Science and Technology Policy Office's associate director, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the dean of UC Berkeley's engineering college was Dan Mote, the president of the University of Maryland and a co-author of a federal report released last fall that's got the attention of everyone from the president to Congress. "Students do not see opportunity in our field," said Mote, referring to IT and computer science. And it's not just kids in poor districts--even the rich kids don't get jazzed about tech. That's going to be a problem as computer companies hunt for the next generation of workers.

In our July 17 cover story, InformationWeek looked at what Microsoft, IBM, Intel, SAP, and other tech companies are doing to attract today's grade-school and high-school kids to computer science--and why they're not always bullish about the prospects.Last year, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) commissioned the National Academies of science, engineering, and medicine to figure out how the U.S. could compete with China, India, South Korea, and other countries for technical excellence, and why our kids are performing so dismally on math and science tests. The Academies convened a brain trust chaired by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine and including Maryland's Mote, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, and executives from Eli Lilly and Co., DuPont, and Exxon Mobile, as well leaders from K-12 schools, higher ed, and the national labs to propose some solutions.

The result, a report called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," contains recommendations about what the government can do to improve the nation's K-12 schools, universities, research agenda, and economic policy to avoid more technical slipping. Among the proposals: Recruit 10,000 science and math teachers each year by awarding new college scholarships; create mini-scholarships to encourage more students to pass advanced placement tests; increase federal spending on basic research in math, the physical sciences, and IT; and provide new research grants of $500,000 to 200 outstanding young researchers each year. The report also suggests awarding 25,000 new college scholarships a year to U.S. citizens studying science, math, and engineering; and extending the visas of international students pursuing PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The committee's more frightening findings included indications that fewer than a third of U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders performed proficiently on math tests, and that a great majority of grade-schoolers are taught math or science by someone who isn't credentialed in either field.

Part of the reason the U.S. isn't grooming enough future computer jocks could be that the discipline mystifies lots of kids, Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women & IT, said at Microsoft's panel discussion. "Computer science is a stealth profession--no one really knows what we do," she said. K-12 schools provide very little computer science education--most instruction covers computer literacy, which isn't the same as computer fluency, said Sanders, who worked for more than 20 years on software problems at AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, and Avaya before founding the Center. Instead of teaching how computers can help solve practical problems, schools' coursework couches things in terms of technologies--Java and C vs. business and medicine. "That's just the wrong way to approach it," she said. Education needs to get "away from the notion that computing equals programming."

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, proposed sponsoring contests among students for AP course slots. "Once you create competition, kids come out of the woodwork," he said. Sanders pointed out that the computer science AP test is due to be revamped soon, presenting an opportunity for reshaping the curriculum.

So far, some proposed legislation has emerged from the "Gathering Storm" report. During his State of the Union address in February, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, a bill that would commit $5.9 billion in new government spending on research and development and education during the 2007 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Bush has also proposed a budget hike for overall federal R&D funding in fiscal '07 to $137 billion, more than double the spending in 2001. This month, the House of Representatives passed a portion of the ACI that raises the National Science Foundation's budget by about 7%, to $6 billion.

That's a good start, but Congress should also turn its attention to the educational fixes proposed by the Gathering Storm committee to help boost interest in IT where it's incubated.

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