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Public Papers - 1989 - October

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Excellence in Science and Math Teaching Awards

1989-10-24

Welcome to the White House on this glorious fall day. I'm sorry if I'm just a little bit late. I was sitting in there trying to solve a few quadratic equations. [Laughter] Somewhat more difficult than balancing the budget, I might say. And then I thought it might be appropriate to have a moment of silence in memory of those substitute teachers back home. [Laughter]

It really is a pleasure to have you all here. And to Erich Bloch, the Director of the National Science Foundation, and to my colleague, confidant, Dr. Bromley, our Science Advisor, and to the outstanding teachers we honor today -- you've taken one of the Nation's most vital and yet too often unappreciated tasks. And because you've committed yourselves to excellence on the frontlines of American education, you really do represent our best hope for the future.

So many Americans remember a special teacher who made a quiet but crucial difference in their lives. And it might have been the teacher who brought math to life explaining ratios by using the gears of a bicycle, or maybe it's a teacher who revealed the powerful drama in the life of a single cell or who sparked speculation about the expansion of the universe. Of course, those of us who haven't been to school in a while get our scientific understanding from those Gary Larson cartoons -- [laughter] -- like the one where, after detailed calculations, Einstein discovers that time is actually money. [Laughter]

Now, you've seen all the surveys about American students' poor performance in scientific knowledge compared to their peers around the world. We've all seen them. We agonize over them. And it is a serious problem, but you are not just complaining about it. You're doing something about it, and you're showing that excellence is not just possible in American education -- it ought to be the norm. And you and the outstanding teachers across the country that you represent are creating centers of excellence in classrooms of every kind, setting standards for the rest of the country to follow, and creating exceptional students.

This year a high school student from Denver named Steven Gubser won the 20th International Physics Olympiad in Warsaw. When the United States began competing in the tournament in 1986, some thought that our students wouldn't really have a chance against students from Europe and the Far East. But our teams have consistently distinguished themselves, capped by this gold medal performance. This is the standard of excellence that America's students and teachers should aspire to and that more can attain. Our problem is not that we don't have American students excelling at science and math -- we just don't see enough of them. Of course, there were a few outstanding students in my time. I had a friend who was so smart once that he knew how to convert meters to gallons -- [laughter] -- in his head.

The work of outstanding teachers like yourselves has a profound impact not just on the students you teach but on the Nation as a whole. And the link between science and technology and our standard of living is stronger today than ever before. At a time when our international position in certain key industries is being challenged, we face impending shortages of qualified scientists and engineers. So, your work is helping to meet a crucial need, a national need.

Not every student will be a physics olympian or make a career as a scientist, but growing numbers will have jobs based on new technologies: farm workers producing genetically engineered crops; auto workers involved with robotics, cybernetic systems, electronic controls; service people maintaining computers and telecommunication systems. It'll be new skills and the ability to learn them quickly and adapt that will be crucial to their future and America's future.

When I met with the Nation's Governors in Charlottesville last month at that educational summit, they told me, as the business community continues to tell me, that a clear consensus is emerging on the crucial need to improve math and science education in this country. And that's why we're establishing a National Science Scholars program for top math and science students across the country. And for students of all abilities we're working to set national goals for math and science education. We're going to be looking to you for advice and guidance on those goals and the steps we can take together to attain them. I want to encourage you to work with this administration, and certainly with the Governors in the 50 States, to refine our approach to math and science education. All of you as teachers know the larger role that education plays in a free society.

Every student in America, even those who don't choose technical careers, will need enough scientific and mathematical understanding to make decisions about the technologies of the 21st century. You understand the importance of a literate and informed citizenry, and you're acting on that understanding and for the sake of every student you teach every day.

You know, a few minutes ago I said that all of us -- just about all of us -- can think of special teachers, teachers that touched our lives forever. But it's also true that the greatest minds in science and mathematics were inspired and directed by teachers of their own, and that's worth remembering. What you're doing today has the potential to unleash the genius of an entire new generation. And for all that you've done and all that you will continue to do, we three here -- and I expect I speak for the two distinguished scientists that join us, but I know I speak for Dan Quayle, our able Vice President, and Barbara, who is so committed to helping you all, especially in the field of literacy -- for all you've done, we want to just thank you and congratulate you and urge you to keep it up. And may God bless this vital work that you do. Thank you so much for coming to the White House.

Note: The President spoke at 10:02 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to D. Allan Bromley, Science Advisor to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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