A week and a half ago, NASA landed its Curiosity rover on Mars, opening a new stage of exploration on our neighboring planet. The mission opens doors for the next generation of Americans to experience the boundaries pushed by NASA as images of the Martian landscape are posted across the web.
Carl Sagan’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning 1980 series Cosmos highlighted the power of astronomy, cosmology, and exploration and inspired a generation. Sagan has again become popular on the internet, on YouTube and in memes lately, alongside Richard Fenyman and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Users are attempting to recapture the spirit of Cosmos and evangelize science and technology anew. While I have many favorite moments in the series, one video that sticks with me is Sagan teaching children in a Brooklyn classroom about the universe. I would easily trade all of my schooling to be in that classroom on that day.
You may be wondering why all of this matters to startups. It’s hard for me to look at individuals like Bobak Ferdowski, Flight Director for the mission, or Sagan, Feynman, or deGrasse Tyson without dwelling on the importance of education to the future of innovation and technology in the United States. Despite a revival of enthusiasm for these scientific public figures, fewer students are graduating with high tech degrees. According to the Department of Commerce, fewer than forty percent of students entering college pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics leave with a degree in one of these fields.
The U.S. needs STEM graduates to build more than Mars rovers. One stereotypical image associated with startups is of enterprising college dropouts building businesses in garages, but the fact is that STEM graduates are needed to build the next generation of American businesses. Recent debate over immigration reform for high skilled workers demonstrates the need for more students ready to take on the technical challenges posed by businesses that harness technology -- whether computer science-based or in fields such as health and energy -- to create a new class of disruptive products.
The discussion of education and U.S. schools’ priorities have lagged behind the debate about NASA’s funding in a time when the economy dominates U.S. politics. Lawmakers need to make a stronger connection between education, scientific achievement, and the progress of the economy as a whole. Startups and high tech firms help drive job growth beyond STEM degree holders. Research has shown that startups that survive and become successful companies create millions of jobs, most of which include administrators, accountants, and executives.
Though its easy to focus on our differences in an election year, the success of NASA serves as a reminder of our commonly held values and the importance of pushing boundaries, exploring, and innovating. We need more than the space program to inspire students to reach for the stars. Lawmakers need to make sure this generation of American students have the resources, encouragement, and opportunity to launch the economy of tomorrow.
Image via NASA.gov