Former Presidential Adviser Norm Augustine speaking about STEM education

When Norm Augustine talks, people tend to listen.

And that’s because the former chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, who has traveled to 111 countries, served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council, and has been to the South Pole on 3 separate occasions, has a world of experience.

“I am frankly very worried about the country,” Augustine said, “but the highest priority thing to fix in this country is K-12 education.”

“Fixing the budget is a big deal, but even that ranks below K-12 education in my opinion,” he added.

At the invitation of Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran, Augustine spent Monday meeting with students, educators, politicians, and business leaders at Albemarle High School to discuss science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, a cause he’s championed since his retirement.

With the United States ranking 31st of 74 in mathematics and 23rd of 74 in science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment—a global exam given to 15-year-olds every 3 years—leaders and educators are concerned about American students’ deficiencies in STEM subjects.

Augustine thinks those weak spots will affect economic competitiveness on the global stage.

“We’re moving in that direction in my opinion…[but] I think we can turn that around,” Augustine said. “The reason I think that the economic argument is so important is that everything else depends on it. If you don’t have a strong economy you can’t have strong schools and you can’t have a strong national defense because you don’t have the money to pay for it.”

However, despite knowing the consequences of poorly trained scientists and engineers, Augustine said there are numerous obstacles working against high quality STEM instruction, including a lack of encouragement, technology’s rate of change, and public perception.

“Science and engineering in this county have never really had the respect that they have in many other countries, particularly in developing countries” he added, noting that many young people in developing nations dream of STEM careers. “Whereas the dream in this country I suspect is to go work on Wall Street or something like that.”

Moran is equally concerned, but not for economic reasons.

“I’ve seen a study that states that only 28 percent of the American population is considered to be scientifically literate, that even understands the basics of why we have seasons or understands force of motion,” Moran said.

“One of the bigger conversations that we really need to have is that beyond the economy, in a day and age where science permeates pretty much every decision that gets made in many ways, having that kind of a lack of literacy in science has to be a critical failure of a system,” Moran added.  

Augustine thinks there are two ways to move forward.

“One way is to have a terrible shock and hope you can recover,” he said. “The second way is to do what you’re doing here in this county and try to anticipate the problem and go out and…compete.”

And Augustine praises Albemarle’s instructional approach.

“The one thing that stands out, and it’s the one thing that I always look for is the tie between traditional teaching of subjects and tying in experiential learning…where you solve problems as opposed to just learning to do equations or something,” Augustine said.

“The school system here seems to be placing a great deal of emphasis on that, which not only is valuable in its own right, but the young people will enjoy what they’re learning and will be more likely to stay with it,” Augustine added.

Currently, Albemarle features the Health and Medical Sciences Academy at Monticello High School and the Math, Engineering, and Science Academy at Albemarle High School. In fall 2014, Western Albemarle High School will launch an Environmental Studies Academy.

“I visit schools all around the world and I try to learn lessons about what works and what doesn’t work,” Augustine said, “so it’s a pleasure to go somewhere and see what does work.”