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  Geotimes - April 2007 - Comment

Education: Why Do I Have to Learn Geometry?
Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers
Michigan-3rd District

A father recently asked me for ammunition to use with his son who had questioned the need to study geometry. This reminded me of similar discussions I had with my children about their science and math studies. Many obstacles remain in convincing our society about the importance of math and science education. The study of these subjects is critical for every student in our nation, not only for enhancing their opportunities for good jobs, but also for improving our national security and competitiveness.

The scientific community accepts that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are uniquely important disciplines that deserve emphasis in our K-12 curriculum. This sentiment is not universally embraced, but these subjects deserve the national spotlight. STEM subjects are directly tied to our national economy. American scientists and engineers have consistently advanced the cutting edge of scientific discovery. Our educational system, in part, facilitates an environment that fuels the constant stream of innovative ideas that is a hallmark of our nation.

The changing nature of our economy and workplaces demands workers equipped with at least a basic understanding of STEM subjects. Further-more, a technically literate public approaches all manner of problems with a critical analysis obtained through an understanding of the scientific method. This skill is useful in exploring new ideas and fostering innovation. Even politicians should have an understanding of STEM subjects, as an increasing number of our nation’s laws involve technical and scientific principles, and all legislators need to understand these bills before they vote on them!

Relying on the status quo is not enough. U.S. students are not performing well in science and mathematics compared to their international peers. At a time when STEM education is increasingly important to all careers, many K-12 STEM teachers lack a background in these fields. Furthermore, while the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has made important strides toward strengthening standards-based education and holding schools accountable for ensuring that students actually learn, we still have 50 different sets of academic standards, state assessments and definitions of proficiency that create tremendous variability across our nation in the subject matter our students are learning.

Our current and future international competitors are investing heavily in STEM education and research, recognizing the link between a strong education program and the future success of their nations. We must take action to educate our nation’s children and prepare our workforce in a manner that will keep our country globally competitive. With Congress set to reauthorize NCLB this year, I have introduced a number of bills to strengthen STEM education. Under the current NCLB law, schools are required to test students’ knowledge of science beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, although schools will not yet be held accountable for their results.

The Science Accountability Act of 2007 would hold schools accountable for ensuring that students learn science, as the law already does for math and reading. Another bill I introduced along with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids Act, would create rigorous, voluntary education content standards in math and science for grades K-12, and provide incentives to encourage states to adopt the standards. Another duo of bills aimed at elementary and secondary education would provide tax credits to STEM teachers, as well as for businesses that donate qualified equipment. Finally, the Math and Science School Readiness Act of 2007 focuses on teaching math and science concepts at the earliest ages, in the federal Head Start preschool program.

In response to the father who wrote to me lamenting his son’s lack of interest in geometry, I told him that being a part of the global citizenry requires a strong grasp of math and science, regardless of his son’s ultimate vocation. Two trivial examples: Mastering geometry could assist this young man in passing his driving exam’s three-point turn test or, perhaps, engineering the best way to redesign his closet space. Not only that, geometry will lay the groundwork for his future career, whether it is in art, acupuncture or algebra.

Certainly, it takes more than math and science skills to succeed; the best student (and the best employee) is one who truly desires and comprehends a well-rounded liberal arts education, and integrates all of these subjects into creatively solving problems.

Taking a variety of courses in high school helps students choose a major in college and a career in life. One of my sons studiously avoided math and science throughout his high school career because he had no intention of becoming a scientist. But in college he was required to take a science course. He picked geology because he thought it would be easy and involve the least amount of mathematics. Surprisingly, he fell in love with the science and today is a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan. Needless to say, his earlier avoidance of math and science led to a lot of remedial study as he worked toward his degree in geology. That’s one reason I recommend keeping those doors open, and I advocate for expanded STEM education for all students.

I hope that you will share my goal of improving STEM education at all levels and take the time to relay the importance of these subjects in your everyday life to America’s young people as well.

Congressman Ehlers, who holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of the House Committees on Science & Technology and Education & Labor. He was first elected to Congress in 1993.

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