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BP Oil Disaster: Sputnik II?

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Like many New Jersey families, my children and I recently spent several sunny, fun-filled days on the Shore, enjoying mini-golf, water parks and beautiful, pristine beaches. June 28 marks day 70 of the BP oil spill disaster, and it loomed over our brief vacation like an ominous dark cloud.

Since the BP oil spill began, my young children have been asking a lot questions -many of which I, or anyone else, cannot answer. "Why can't they turn off the pipe?" Before we arrived on the beach, they were worried that the beautiful white sand they remembered from last summer would be sullied with clumps of crude oil, with images of helpless, oil drenched sea gulls in their minds. Like any parent, I assured them it would be fine (would it really?) and that they need not worry. Our talks became an opportunity to discuss nature and how important it is to preserve it.

It all came into focus with one simple question from my 8 year old daughter:

"That's fine, Daddy, but what about next year?"

New Jersey's shore may well be untouched by the spill this summer, but what about the future? What effect will hurricanes have on our shores?

An eternal optimist, my sincerest hope is that this disaster will become a turning point for how we approach environmental preservation and restoration, and could become "Sputnik II", as suggested recently by Andrew Romanoff, a candidate for the US Senate.

The launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I in the Fall of 1957 is widely recognized as a watershed moment for science and mathematics education in the U.S. The federal government acted quickly to provide vast resources to support young students with the National Defense Education Act in 1958 backed by more than $7 billion in today's dollars.

Unfortunately, the leadership role of the US in science and mathematics education at the primary and secondary level (Kindergarten through 12th grade) has consistently declined over the past 30 years, referred to as a "sad state" by Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of Science. In 2006, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st of out 30 developed countries in an assessment of understanding of science.

Similar to post-Sputnik, lessons learned from stopping the oil leak, followed by extensive restoration of the affected areas, could not only provide an opportunity for strengthening our science and mathematics education, but could foster greater support of research and development of alternative, renewable fuels. As President Obama said in his Oval Office speech on June 15, ""the time to embrace a clean energy future is now".

If we do act now to further support research and education to wean us away from dependence on oil, then our current nightmare could become Sputnik II and we will be able to emerge with a deeper appreciation for nature that most of us have taken for granted.

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Jeffrey H. Toney is Dean of the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences at Kean University and is a Trusted Author at OpEdNews. He received a B.S. in Chemistry at the University of Virginia and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemistry at Northwestern (more...)
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