Sandy's Lesson for the Next Generation of Scientists

You don't have to look much further than Hurricane Sandy to realize how important scientists are to society.

Over the past week, we went from heeding the predictions of meteorologists and oceanographers before the storm to post-Sandy concerns, such as how to clean up damage and eventually rebuild.

Could Hurricane Sandy mark the defining moment for America's next generation of scientists - the singular event that lets someone know that she can earn a living AND make a difference in the world at the same time?

The ingredients are in place for such a spike in interest in the science fields.

First off, we are actually seeing that scientists and engineers make a significant difference. They can save lives by forecasting catastrophe and rebuilding decimated communities. That Sandy occurred in the heavily populated Northeast means that a larger audience of future professionals can find inspiration in the wonderful capabilities of science and engineering professionals.

Furthermore, science is one field where you can find job growth - which is an important message in areas where residents really need jobs, such as poor urban neighborhoods.

Of course, I am oversimplifying the argument - you can't just pluck someone, from anywhere, and make them a world-class scientist overnight.

What we can do, though, is focus our efforts upstream---on training the current generation of urban teenagers to be the top science minds of tomorrow.

In fact, we are providing a high school education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for hundreds of low-income students in Camden, New Jersey - just named the poorest city in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau.

We recently cut the ribbon on a $12.5 STEM charter school, where approximately 250 teenagers from poverty-level backgrounds can learn from the best - PhD's in physics, chemistry and other technology fields.

Here is the idea. Educate students in the field where jobs will exist in the future -- and they themselves will become qualified to hold those positions.

For example, our new STEM school includes a fabrication lab - a place where the whole community will be invited to turn innovative concepts to solve societial problems. .

In fact, the Mayor of Camden is already challenging our students to develop a filtration system to improve the quality of Camden's now filthy drinking water - a critical need in our city.

I got the idea for the fabrication lab when I visited a school in Africa. I figured "if it could work there, it can work here."

And fabrication labs can work in American schools - urban and suburban. We can solve problems in our communities by thinking a little differently.

Meanwhile, today's scientists and engineers are busy cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. Let's hope their work inspires the next generation of STEM professionals. Our future depends on it.

The effort will prove worthwhile. Having more well-trained STEM professionals means a lot more skilled people who can solve social problems - and not just after a horrible natural disaster.