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The three Rs and an S

While the three Rs of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic are certainly foundational subjects for Maryland students, there is an important letter missing — an 'S' for science. Science should be seen as a core subject for our children, not just an afterthought or add-on reserved for a subset of our student body.

Scientific thinking informs and enhances all that we do. It gives students an understanding of the world around them, inspires curiosity and discovery and inculcates logical thinking. And it leads to careers in any number of the growing science-related fields that cry out for new employees.

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Our nation's economy is changing. The jobs that can secure a reliable pathway for millions of our citizens into a good middle-class quality of life are going to be very different from those of the past. One clear example of this is the existence of self-driving 18-wheelers. Many have heard of Google's self-driving car, but not the Mercedes self-driving 18-wheeler that the state of Nevada has decreed is legal for its highways on a trial basis. More states are likely to follow. Similarly recent viral videos show lifelike robots made by the company Boston Dynamics walking in the woods and performing chores.

As these technologies advance and even newer ones are created, they will displace some jobs, yes, but also create new ones that will be filled by everyday workers who possess the necessary educational background. They will become the mechanics and technicians of tomorrow, while others will go on to become researchers, technology entrepreneurs, physicians and engineers.

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This is why we are such big supporters of the Maryland Next Generation Science Standards. These standards — derived from standards developed collaboratively by scientists, science educators, professors and industry experts across a number of states — are designed to turn students into thinkers capable of holding, as a minimum, the new middle class job in a rapidly advancing technological economy. Embedded into local school system curricula, these standards don't just teach "science" but how to think like a scientist — asking questions, solving problems and analyzing outcomes. Newly created jobs will (and already do) put a premium on these habits of mind.

Development of these standards did not occur overnight in some sort of sealed off laboratory, nor were they dictated by the federal government. Maryland educators joined other education professionals to, over a three-year period, develop, debate, vet and incorporate into the classroom these important learning goals. The reports from teachers have been very positive. That should be no surprise.

The science class of our youth too often involved memorizing facts or following instructions straight out of a lab manual. But that isn't the cool part of science — the part that sparks imagination. The new standards help students understand how the world works. There is less memorization and fewer fill-in-the-bubble work sheets. Instead, students break down the big ideas of science. They apply their knowledge by conducting investigations, building models and testing — and retesting — their ideas.

Under the standards, fifth graders may work collaboratively to investigate ways to design symbiotic systems in tanks with cultivating plants in a recirculating ecosystem for fish and plants, while exploring human impacts on the environment. High school students may use the engineering-design process to carry out relevant scientific investigations in order to plan and construct a model solar vehicle that could lead to solving many of the problems associated with fossil fuels.

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Today's world is lightning fast, with information technology and robots about to further increase this. Our children are growing up in an interactive, digital era, where they will soon collaborate as easily with a student across the globe as with a classmate across the room. This world requires interactive lessons that fuel learning and the imagination.

We are excited about the Maryland students who will emerge from today's science classrooms. We certainly hope that a large number will take what they have learned and continue that journey in higher education and later in the business world. But no matter what road they take after graduation, we are confident they will make observations, ask probing questions, apply what they've learned and come to the right conclusions. Just like a scientist.

Norman Augustine (norm.augustine@lmco.com) is the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed-Martin, and former member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. S. James Gates (gatess@physics.umd.edu) is University System Regents Professor, the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Center for String and Particle Theory Director, and serves on the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); he is also vice president of the Maryland State Board of Education.

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