January 2001 -- Last month brought good news and bad news about science education in America.
The bad news came in the form of international math and science test scores for eighth-graders. American students placed in the middle rank of thirty-eight nations, showing no improvement from the same comparison in 1995 despite concerted efforts to raise the quality of science instruction. American students were surpassed not only by Asians (Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Korea)-no surprise there-but also by Slovenia, Hungary, and the Russian Federation. The study, conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, also reported data on what is probably a major reason for the United States's mediocre performance. More American teachers majored in education than in the subject they teach; in other countries the reverse is true.
But good news came in the announcement of winners in the Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition, which awarded prizes to high school students for research at the frontiers of science.
Mariangela Lisanti, a seventeen-year-old senior at Staples High School in Connecticut, won first prize in the individual competition for a discovery in quantum physics. Using materials from a local electronics store, she built a device that demonstrated the quantum nature of electrical conductance in gold wires. According to the Siemens Foundation, "Miss Lisanti's project started with an apparatus consisting of two gold wires soldered onto copper wires, with one copper wire resting across a vibrating speaker. Miss Lisanti then used the vibrations of the speaker to make the gold tips move in and out of contact to form a nanowire. The results showed conductance quantization for gold, demonstrating the accuracy of the device. Conductance quantization was also observed for higher multiples of the conductance quantum - something that has never been seen before. Miss Lisanti's project is a very important step toward the next generation of electronics, where single atoms or molecules - as opposed to complex forms - will be used to fabricate electronic devices."In the team competition, three students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math took first place. Charles Olbert, Christopher Clearfield, and Nikolas Williams analyzed data from NASA's Chandra X-Ray telescope to establish the existence of a previously unknown pulsar, the remnant of an exploded star in the Gemini constellation. Their analysis of the data challenged the thesis held by their project mentor-and by NASA scientists-that the region of high-energy is a dense cloud of gas. "It's a truly remarkable discovery," says Robert Fesen, professor of astronomy at Dartmouth, "and one that has already changed existing scientific ideas."
The Siemens Westinghouse competition was created in 1998, with entries judged by scientists at MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, University of Texas at Austin, and other leading universities. Despite the name, it has no relation to the long-running Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which is now sponsored by Intel and announces its winners in March. In the Intel competition, last year's award went to Viviana Risca, a senior in Port Washington, New York, for a project using DNA molecules to encrypt messages. According to the award announcement, Risca "encrypted the message, 'JUNE6_INVASION: NORMANDY,' inserted it in the gene sequence of a DNA-strand, and flanked it by two secret 'primer' DNA sequences. Then she combined the molecule with many other similar molecules. The hidden message could be retrieved only by someone knowing the two secret primer sequences-the keys to the code. Because the pair of primers provides a trillion trillion options, she concludes that the code is essentially unbreakable."
Somehow, young people of extraordinary talent and initiative are finding the teachers they need-not just these winners but the hundreds who enter the competitions every year, and the many thousands more who excel in school and go on to careers in science and technology. If the human mind is the ultimate resource, our economy is well-stocked.
The cultural implications are as significant as the economic ones. The most important issues in any culture are its attitude toward reason and toward individual achievement. In an age when the most prominent public intellectuals disparage reason, when the postmodern attack on objectivity and intellectual standards has trickled down into the educational system, there are legions of students and teachers whose passion for science bespeaks an implicit commitment to reason. And in an age when equality has replaced achievement as a dominant social value, when magnet schools and programs for the gifted are denounced by egalitarians, the best and the brightest students are still getting encouragement and training from educators, monetary awards from business, admiration from the public.
This article was originally published in the January 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.