Pushing for the "Sputnik Moment"

from Technology & Learning

A conversation with Arizona governor and National Governor's Association Chair, Janet Napolitano.

The governor of Arizona has been described as "tough," "feisty," and "pragmatic." And as chair of the National Governor's Association, Janet Napolitano has become a national advocate for a transformed digital age.

Napolitano, a Democrat, has brought a new energy to her state and to the nation with initiatives that demonstrate the fact that she really means business. Topping the list is Innovation America, which aims to drive American competitiveness via government efforts at the state level, with a new, more powerful emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math education.

In her own state, Napolitano has taken creative steps to encourage biotech, bioscience research, and high-tech education to form groundbreaking partnerships that reward businesses for staying within the state.

Straight talking, straightforward, earthy, and with a healthy sense of humor, Napolitano's no-nonsense approach toward 21st-century education policies earned her a standing ovation from more than 100 education publishers at a recent Software and Information Association conference in San Francisco. Among the well-applauded statements by the governor, was the following:

"I'm not entirely kidding when I say you shouldn't be able to get a driver's license unless you've passed algebra."

The governor made time in her busy sche dule to talk to T&L.

Q. What is the most crucial issue in education today?

A. There are many crucial issues, but primarily, we need to re-think education to match the needs of the 21st century. We need to think differently about the function of education today and the role of schools today. It's a new world, and what we need to do to prepare students is different than it was for previous generations.

Q. Who should be taking the lead in making this happen?

A. Certainly, the nation's governors should be playing a critical role in making sure their state's schools succeed. And school leaders should be stepping up to the challenge of innovation.

Q. What are some specific actions we need to take now?

A. First, we need to align the curriculum from Pre-school up through college. That is why I instituted the P-20 council in Arizona, so that there would be common language around what we need students to know. For instance, we need to be sure we all mean the same thing when we talk about knowing algebra. Parts of No Child Left Behind are useful. Building in accountability is good. For too many years we've been throwing money at education but not measuring its effect.

Q. What should be the priority for schools today?

A. They should be ensuring that students are well-versed in science, math, and technology. Students also need to know how to communicate clearly and succinctly. There needs to be a lot of encouragement for innovation. Rigor and problem-solving should be emphasized from the earliest Pre-school curriculum up through college.

Q. Innovation has not traditionally been a priority in the public education curriculum in this country. How do we get educators up to speed on knowing how to help kids innovate?

A. We need to offer educators ongoing support. Teachers need to get out there and be part of the innovations that are happening now. During the summer time, math and science teachers should go work in the high-tech industries and see what is going on there so they can bring "real world" practices into the classroom.

Q. Traditionally, education has remained "pure" of business interests. Do you see a conflict with businesses playing a role, perhaps even influencing the curriculum?

A. No. I think we need to look beyond those old divisions and attitudes about school. The business community needs to be part of the discussion. We need to re-think what it means to be educated in the 21st century. The technologies have changed and our needs have changed. Our students need the skills to succeed in the digital workplace.

Q. What do you mean when you say the country needs a "Sputnik moment"?

A. If we don't change the way we teach, 10 or 15 years down the line we will certainly not be the number-one performing economy in the world, and we need to be.

We don't have a national sense of urgency, and we should. Technology is causing rapid world transformation, and we need to keep up. Yet we haven't mustered the urgency.

Back in 1957 when Russia launched the first space satellite, it was a wake-up call for the nation. There was an immediate and urgent response from the country to step up math and science education. For us, it may be the 2008 Beijing Olympics when we become aware of the extent of high-tech expertise in the East.

Q. Are there additional points you'd like to make?

A. Yes, I have been in too many classrooms that are called "21st century classrooms" because there are computers in the room, but the teacher is still teaching in the same old way. We need to re-tool the curriculum so that it takes advantage of the possibilities of technology—we need to think of how to innovate and take advantage of what the technologies can make possible. We need critical thinking and higher-order skills, not just a new way to deliver the same old instruction.

Susan McLester is editor in chief of Technology & Learning magazine.

Napolitano's Innovation Initiatives

The following comprises an impressive list of initiatives put in place in Governor Napolitano's home state.

Arizona Center for Innovation This high-tech company developer focuses on companies in aerospace, advanced composites and materials, information technology, environmental technology.

BIO5 Institute BIO5 provides researchers with state-of-the-art equipment and provides the infrastructure necessary to translate scientific discoveries into tangible benefit.

Biodesign Institute A drug with potential to save the lives of stroke victims, new diagnostic tests, and next-generation flexible electronic displays with multiple applications in medicine and industrial processes have all been developed at this R&D institute.

Bioscience High School This brand-new public school focuses on biotechnology, connecting students with tools, resources, and experts nationwide.

Critical Path Institute C-Path, an independent organization at the University of Arizona, was created in 2005 to support the FDA in its effort to safely accelerate the development of and access to new medications.

Flexible Display Center Created with a grant from the U.S. Army, this center works to develop computer displays that can be rolled up or folded and put in a soldier's pocket.

Global Institute of Sustainability Billed as the first of its kind in the world, this institute brings scientists, engineers, and government and industry leaders together to develop solutions to real-world problems, especially as they relate to urban areas.

Growing Biotechnology Initiative This Northern Arizona University program focuses on technology platforms in cancer, neurosciences, bioengineering, infectious diseases, and diabetes.

InnovationSpace This joint venture between the colleges of design, business, and engineering at Arizona State University teaches students how to develop products that create market value while serving real societal needs.

Center of Excellence on SMART Materials Bringing together researchers of various disciplines, this center works to reduce the dependence on non-renewable energy.

Robotics Club This Carl Hayden Community High School extra-curricular robotics team entered its first competition in 2004. The club ended up winning the entire competition, beating top challengers like MIT.

"Silicon Valley of Optics" Tucson, Arizona, is known by this nickname due to the city's growing legion of optics firms.

Technopolis This ASU initiative provides education, coaching, and mentoring to technology and life science entrepreneurs, faculty, and students.