The inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo, held in late October on the National Mall and downtown Washington, D.C., was successful in ways that exceeded the organizers and sponsors’ expectations. As the founding and host sponsor of the festival, Lockheed Martin was delighted with the results. According to estimates, the Festival Expo and other outreach activities reached more than one million people.
What encouraged me most was seeing the excitement of our next-generation engineers and scientists in the faces of the many children who enjoyed the two-day Festival Expo. These future leaders will one day address the world’s most difficult challenges.
I walked away from the Festival Expo on Sunday — with families and school groups still gathering to see hands-on technology exhibits at closing time — moved by the happiness of each and every festival visitor. It seems that science and technology breed optimism; they inspire people to dream about the future. Neither long waits for popular attractions such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 simulator, nor tired feet from walking the length of the mall and back, appeared to have dampened any spirits.
Visitors to the two-day expo experienced demonstrations on aerospace, green energy, medicine, climatology, robotics, nanotechnology and many other science and engineering fields. Organizers did a wonderful job bringing together industry, academia, government and nonprofit organizations, all for the common cause of science education. The festival and expo were ambitious undertakings in size and scope, and the national nature of this event was part of what made it unique. The overwhelming public response was an acknowledgment that robust math and science education is in our country’s strategic interest.
The festival was a lot of fun, but make no mistake — it was also serious business. Innovation has been the cornerstone of U.S. economic growth throughout our nation’s history. Never have the global security challenges been greater, and never have we needed a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM-educated, workforce in the United States more than we do today.
A new report delivered to Congress recently by Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, adds new urgency to our efforts. The report finds that American science and math education is actually “worse off” than it was five years ago, when a similar report sounded alarm bells among educators and policymakers. Our country, a world leader in just about every respect, ranks 48th in terms of STEM education. Nearly half of all Americans cannot say how long it takes the Earth to circle the sun. Our education system is simply not graduating enough engineers to keep the United States competitive.
For those of us in high-tech industries, this is a real concern. At Lockheed Martin, we rely on the skill, talent and creativity of our 70,000 engineers and scientists to develop solutions to our most critical global security challenges. Innovation is the cornerstone of the products and services we develop for our customers, and STEM education is vital to that technical innovation. It is imperative we have a technical talent pipeline that will enable us to provide the innovative solutions for which we are known.
These are the reasons we are so committed to developing the future technical workforce of our country. As a corporation, we set a goal to reach nearly three million students this year with STEM standards-based curriculum. Along with our other education initiatives, the USA Science & Engineering Festival helped us to inspire the technical community of the future.
Ultimately, we think encouraging kids to study math and science is an easy sell. It is as simple as this — students need to know that engineers and scientists, like those in our corporation, create the future. They work on high-tech projects that make a profound difference in our world: space systems, high-performance airplanes, clean-energy solutions, cybersecurity, and national-security technologies that help protect our country. Great careers await them if they sign up for those tougher, but more exciting, courses in math and science.
The enthusiasm level — not only the crowd numbers — is such an important metric for evaluating the success of the festival and other education initiatives. As business leaders, we have to ensure we are nurturing our future workforce with inspiration as well as curriculum, convincing them the possibilities are limited only by their imaginations — and by their commitment.
At the Festival Expo, I was also heartened to see the diversity of the crowds: girls as well as boys putting curious hands on nanotechnology, and families of all ethnicities asking inquisitive questions about green energy. A diverse workforce breeds diverse thinking, which is at the root of invention and innovation. At every turn, we must encourage educational outreach and recruitment that is inclusive.
As we look toward our technology future, we are also celebrating a landmark event in our recent past. Twenty-five years ago, a team in Texas discovered what is known as the Buckminsterfullerene carbon molecule — one of the building blocks of nanotechnology. Nano is a field rich with possibilities. Like plastics a generation ago, it promises to revolutionize the way we live.
One member of that Nobel Prize-winning team, the late Dr. Richard Smalley, was outspoken about the need to tackle humanity’s most-pressing challenges, from energy and the environment, to poverty and disease. In speeches, he would issue a challenge that, today, might serve as a clarion call to all of us invested in the development of our future workforce.
“Be a scientist,” Smalley would say. “Save the world.”