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OPINION: U.S. should hail young scientists

Photo Credit: TMS illustration/Donna Grethen

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.

Long Island is on the front lines of keeping America technologically competitive. On Monday, three local teens took home $70,000 in prizes at the national Siemens Competition in math, science and technology.

Nevin Daniel, a student at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, won a second-place $50,000 scholarship. Nikhil Mehandru from Roslyn High School and Sonya Prasad of the Wheatley School in Old Westbury were part of a three-person team that will split a fourth-place $30,000 award.

Daniel, Mehandru and Prasad were mentored by their science teachers and guided by faculty at Stony Brook University. Their victories represent brilliant ideas, and thousands of hours of dedication.

Their wins are no fluke. Intel's annual International Science and Engineering Fair is the world's most prestigious and largest pre-college science fair, and Long Island regularly produces a large percentage of the competition's semifinalists. This past spring, 61 of the 300 semifinalists were from Long Island - more than from California, Texas and Massachusetts combined.

The Island's strong showing in national science competitions not only represents the success of a few standouts. It's the result of innovation and talented teachers from the elementary through the high school levels. It also speaks to a solid commitment to engaging students of all abilities in the process of scientific inquiry.

Garden City teachers Kathleen Dubuke and Cynthia Quarantello are just two examples of this dedication. Dubuke, who teaches science, and Quarantello, who teaches special education, work together to bring scientific concepts to life for students with special needs. The pair recently presented a workshop on co-teaching chemistry at a conference sponsored by the Long Island Science Education Leadership Association (LISELA). They have also been invited to present on the same topic at an upcoming conference sponsored by the Science Teachers Association of New York State and LISELA.

Students, teachers, parents and mentors - anyone involved in getting children and young adults of all abilities interested and active in science - should be applauded, particularly since a UNESCO report released late last month shows the United States and its peers falling behind when it comes to technological prowess. "Science Report 2010" found that the economic downturn has by and large benefited scientists in the developing world, as traditional powerhouses have had to slow investments in education and research and development, while emerging economies have seen an influx of opportunities and incentives.

Not surprisingly, UNESCO found that China will soon overtake the United States and Europe in its number of working scientists. Ditto for the number of science and engineering PhDs. And The Economist has reported that China will also take the lead in 2011 in number of patents registered - though experts say the United States still leads in terms of high-quality patents and, because workers in Chinese patent offices are paid more if they approve more, many patents there are of inferior quality.

The changing equation of R&D investment and the shifting of scientific prowess have huge implications for all of us. They are at the heart of how we hone and utilize human capital to innovate - innovation that's the source of ideas, products, services and contributions to the economy at all levels.

Federal policy-makers are trying to address our loss of competitive advantage, even as government resources become more taxed. Among other efforts, the White House established the Educate to Innovate campaign last year to improve education in science, technology, engineering and math.

Such federal programs are important, and so is celebrating achievement at local levels to create the scientists of tomorrow. The Long Islanders involved in these efforts aren't just doing a good job - they're leading an important fight for the future.

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