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What WWII pilots can teach us about math education

If President Obama is to succeed in transforming STEM education, he should follow FDR and other top-performing Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan

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Thirty-four years after its predecessor program became the most viewed series in PBS history, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is introducing a new generation of viewers to the wonders of the universe. No less a fan than President Obama opened the first episode, saying that “…there are new frontiers to explore, and we need Americans eager to explore them.”

President Obama has long been a proponent of education, particularly the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. His fiscal 2015 budget, recently released, proposes $2.9 billion in programs across the Federal government in support of STEM education, including $40 million to prepare 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade and $20 million to launch a pilot STEM Master Teacher Corps.

Will the federal government’s ambitious plans to improve STEM education succeed or fail?

Another chapter from U.S. history might uncover the answer. More than 70 years ago another Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, faced a similar challenge—the urgent need to quickly produce 100,000 competent pilots to fight in World War II. FDR’s dilemma was no less daunting, as early aviation schools had fatality rates as high as 25 percent.

With that kind of abysmal failure rate, did it make sense to pour vast amounts of money into producing more flight instructors? Or was it better to ask the question: “Is there a better way to learn to fly?”

(Next page: Helping children build a solid foundation in mathematics)

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