K-12 and Opinion

KATTERJOHN: Where's Mr. Wizard? We need him

August 3, 2009

Growing up I watched a series called “Watch Mr. Wizard” on television. The kids show ran on NBC from 1951 to 1965 and featured Don Herbert. He conducted science experiments on the air that we could do at home.

It was wildly popular. By 1954 it was shown on nearly 100 stations, and by 1965 it had spawned literally tens of thousands of Mr. Wizard Science Clubs throughout North America.

It’s basic premise was: Science is amazing and fun! And Mr. Wizard succeeded in making it that way. Even I, a future liberal arts major, was enthralled and engaged enough to try many of his experiments myself.

We could use Mr. Wizard today. We don’t have enough kids interested in science and math who will grow into the kind of skilled employees Indiana will need in the future.

That fact was driven home recently at IBJ’s Power Breakfast on Life Sciences, when panelist Jerome Peribere, CEO of Dow AgroSciences, lamented the shortage.

When he asked people in the audience to raise their hands if they had a child who was studying or interested in science, no more than a half-dozen hands went up. There were more than 450 people in the room.

Channeling Mr. Wizard, Peribere said, “You see. That is the problem. We need to create a climate for our kids where science is fun, interesting and good.” Science has to be cool.

His sentiments were echoed by panel members David Johnson, CEO of BioCrossroads, and Michael Evans, CEO of AIT Laboratories. (A synopsis of the discussion will be published in IBJ’s Life Sciences Focus on Aug. 10.)

Central Indiana Corporate Partnership CEO Mark Miles wrote in these pages last year about the importance of growing more science and math students to become scientists, engineers and the like to fill the jobs created by the state’s most promising industries: life sciences, manufacturing, technology and logistics.

A recent study by the National Association of Manufacturers shows that 80 percent of its members rank “finding skilled workers” as a critical challenge.

The Indiana Education Roundtable reports the following: High school students who take one extra unit of senior-level math increase their odds of completing a bachelor’s degree by 73 percent; yet only one-third take math in their senior year. Scarier still, less than one-third of Indiana high school students are proficient in math.

It’s important to note that Indiana is addressing this issue on many levels and making progress. In recent years, officials at Indiana’s Department of Education and at the Commission for Higher Education have made this a priority. New DOE chief Tony Bennett and CHE head Teresa Lubbers are on board.

BioCrossroad’s I-STEM network was created to provide more resources to science and math teachers. Ball State University granted a charter to the Indiana Math and Science Academy, a school for grades 6-12 that focuses on Mr. Wizard’s favorite subjects. These are just two of multiple initiatives.

Gov. Daniels is clearly behind the effort. “We love basketball, but it won’t pay the rent,” he said in April. “Indiana’s economic future and our kids’ individual futures depend more than anything else on academic achievement, especially in math and science.”

The occasion for that remark was the 21st annual Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair, where, thanks to the generosity of venture capitalist Bob Compton, the governor presented the winning student with a check for $10,000.

And speaking of money, the math and science grads out there might be laughing all the way to the bank.

Just last week the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks college graduates’ job offers, released a study that showed the top 15 highest-earning college degrees all have math degrees in common.

That ought to get their attention.•

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Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.

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