Like all of us, I enjoy indulging in a bit of wailing about America losing her competitiveness in research fields. Certainly the school situation isn't good over all, and the conditions some bright young scientists must endure in their primary and secondary schools is inexplicable.
On the other hand, American researchers have been having a pretty good year on the Nobel Prize front. Indeed, they've swept the awards. Roger Kornberg of Stanford's School of Medicine won for chemistry, Craig Mello at U Mass Med school and Andrew Fire of Stanford won for medicine, and the physics winners, John C. Mather of NASA and George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab were announced to the public yesterday. These physicists have done groundbreaking work on the small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background that fills our universe. The thinking is that this background is lingering evidence of the Big Bang. Studying it is like studying our universe's baby pictures.
Obviously, there's a lot of great research going on at America's universities, at NASA, and at the national labs. The question is how to translate this spirit of inquiry into science at the student level, so American scientists do Nobel quality work in the future. Equipment is expensive. Talented, well-trained teachers are in short supply. Even chemistry sets are under attack (see the Gifted Exchange post on that from a few months ago).
I believe that partnerships between universities and schools will need to be a big part of the solution. While there are a few good matches out there, unfortunately, they're few and far between. When I was growing up in South Bend, Indiana, my middle and high schools were approximately two miles from Notre Dame, one of the midwest's most prominent research institutions. Yet Notre Dame could have been part of the cosmic microwave background of Northern Indiana for all anyone knew except on football Saturdays. Each institution stays in its little space, like a stereotypical scientist working alone in a lab. But as the many number of pairs of scientists winning Nobel Prizes indicates, real discovery doesn't work that way. Neither should education. Apprenticing local kids to university labs would give the universities free extra hands for simple tasks, and a great education to the students.