In 1957, the Soviet Union put the world's first manmade satellite into orbit around the Earth.
I can remember standing in the back yard of my boyhood home in Illinois with my parents, looking for it in the nighttime sky. Sputnik, as it was called, flashed across the sky like a warning beacon, signaling that America was falling behind in the race into space because we had failed as a country to focus on science in a serious way.
Sputnik caused us to refocus our efforts. Among the most successful were America's programs to renew the emphasis on math and science education in the public schools and to graduate more Ph.D.s in physical science.
Fast forward several decades. America must again stimulate the interest of our young people in math and basic physical science. A recent report published by the National Academies Press points out that U.S. colleges and universities awarded nearly twice as many bachelor's degrees in physics in 1956 — the year before Sputnik — as it did in 2007. And fewer than 15 percent of U.S. high school graduates have sufficient math and science credentials to even begin to pursue a university engineering degree.
This is a critical issue for America. During the last two decades, the number of engineers, mathematicians, physical scientists and geoscientists graduating with bachelor's degrees from U.S. universities has declined by 18 percent. As a percentage of total student population receiving undergraduate degrees, it's down by 40 percent.
Today, China graduates more English-speaking engineers than we do.
To counter this, President Bush has aggressively supported science in the United States through the American Competitiveness Initiative, which is designed to increase funding for the National Science Foundation, as well as the basic physical science research programs at the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The initiative also supports math and science education at the high school and junior high school levels.
But money is only part of the solution. To really make progress in this critical area, we need to make certain America has the scientists, engineers and mathematicians it needs for the future. We're depending on them to develop innovative solutions to our most pressing problems, including those in the energy arena, and to come up with new technologies as well as improvements to existing ones that will keep us competitive in the global economy.
To do that, we need to find ways to stimulate young minds.
Since 1991, the U.S. Department of Energy has sponsored the National Science Bowl, where more than 130,000 students from schools all across the United States have competed using their knowledge of the physical and life sciences.
This weekend, five students from Palm Harbor University High School, having emerged as the winners of regional competitions earlier this year, will be in Washington, D.C., to go up against some of the nation's brightest students in the final round of the National Science Bowl. You should be extremely proud of the Palm Harbor University High team; reaching the final round is not an easy accomplishment.
Working as a team, these students, as well as the other teams participating, took on challenging time-limited problems designed to stimulate their already obvious interest in math and science in ways that, hopefully, will encourage them to pursue these disciplines at the university level and out into the work force.
We all share in the responsibility to ensure that the next generation of scientific leaders receives a firm grounding in math and science if America is to remain at the forefront of scientific innovation.
And, as impressive as the student competitors are, the Department of Energy's National Science Bowl is more than just an academic contest; it's an important part of the effort to reinvigorate science in America, now and into the future.
Samuel W. Bodman was appointed U.S. secretary of energy in 2005. He has a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University.