Hugo Rossi has a book in his home library with the title of "S.O.S," offering help for parents with hyperactive children.
His son, Raffaele, read those letters and proclaimed that the book should be filed in the kitchen. "Well, it is about sauce," the 5-year-old said."This flexibility of mind and imagination I don't see in my freshman when I teach freshman calculus," said Rossi, dean of the University of Utah's College of Science.
America's children are interested in science and math. But somewhere between kindergarten and high school graduation, the country's best minds are losing interest in technical fields, Rossi said in a speech Tuesday.
Students are conditioned to receive rewards for rote learning, while creative problem-solving abilities are educated out. The experimentation sparked by the scientific method has been replaced in America's classrooms by dogma, Rossi said.
Rossi cited the Regional Geometry Institute, a cooperative between the U. and four other universities scheduled in Park City this summer, as an effort to introduce investigative geometry throughout school curriculum. The effort is funded through the National Science Foundation, which requires researchers to detail their educational objective, even for grants devoted strictly to research.
Rossi also detailed groundbreaking industry-education cooperatives that are taking place throughout the country.
At the U., the education department is encouraging a teacher-leader program and inservice training to encourage enhanced math and science education in all grades. The College of Engineering offers programs to support minority and female students. And increased federal funding is encouraging states to develop math and science programs that work.
At the structural level, society's values have to change to reinforce the importance of intellectual discovery, rather than rewarding new camera angles used to film MTV videos. "What we have to do is try to make a frontal attack on this culture using the students," Rossi said.
"The teacher in Japan is a respected member of the community, ranking right up there with doctors and lawyers," Rossi said. "I don't think we can say that here."
In Rossi's breakfast speech to U. educators, he identified the dismal symptoms that education critics keep repeating. Only 40 percent of the graduating seniors who say they are interested in technical fields go on to get advanced degrees. And just 5 percent of those continue to obtain doctorate degrees.
About 27 percent of U.S. high school students drop out before graduating. That compares to a 3 percent dropout rate in Japan.
U.S. eighth graders test about average in rote computations, but are well below the norm in problem-solving skills.
America industry invests $34 billion a year on remedial education, and $29 billion for on-the-job training.
By 1995, the bulge of Sputnik-era researchers will begin retiring. Those who entered the field in the 1950s after Soviet space exploration surprised and energized the American scientific community. According to Rossi, the country's colleges and universities aren't turning out enough trained scientists and mathematicians to fill those positions. Minority and female students continue to turn away from technical training, leaving scientific fields populated by white males.
Some of today's problems in technical education result from the "New Math" era, a post-Sputnik innovation that Rossi labeled a "debacle." A generation of students was turned away when math theory replaced basic concepts in early grades. "Students despaired," Rossi said, and the concept also rendered math irrelevant to parents and teachers.
So reformers replaced theory with drills, which proved even worse. "This New Math was replaced by workbooks that did not require the attention of the teacher."
The Japanese system is successful at teaching math and science because they do more of it, Rossi said. Students attend one hour of math instruction and one hour of science instruction during each of 240 school days. In addition, American school years are only 180 days long, and the system doesn't have enough trained technical teachers to provide more instruction.