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Keynote: Presidential Awards for Mathematics and Science Teaching

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

State Department, Benjamin Franklin Dining Room, Washington, DC.

Given on behalf of the National Science Foundation for the 1998 Presidential Awardees for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Attending: 216 Elementary School Teachers, their guests, and administrators from the NSF and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Introduced by Dr. Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation.

I am honored to be asked to address this distinguished gathering of the 1998 winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. And I applaud the efforts of key administrators from the National Science Foundation and of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who are responsible for this annual celebration.

If you are wondering why such high security measures were in place to enter the State Department Building this evening, it’s because after dinner, each of you will be ushered to a secret room and genetically cloned so that every child in America can be taught and inspired by someone with your talents.

In the meantime, you may be wondering who I am.

Yes, you heard part of my resume from Dr. Colwell’s kind introduction, but most of that information is irrelevant. Allow me to tell you who I am to you. This evening, I brought with me a little book called “Neil’s School Years,” which chronicles every year of my life in school from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Each page contains miscellaneous information such as the first day of school, a list of new friends, favorite activities, and so forth. The book also contains a sleeve for each grade that holds selected items. Among these items are all of my report cards.

For each grade, the book allows you to check a box identifying what you want to be when you grow up. The six options for boys are: Fireman, Policeman, Cowboy, Astronaut, Soldier, and Baseball Player. For Girls we have: Mother, Nurse, School Teacher, Airline Hostess, Model, and Secretary. How a girl could become a mother but a boy could not become a father was a great biological mystery to me at the time, but let’s ignore the period sexism and go straight to my 3rdgrade report card.

So who am I to you?

I am the student whose 3rd grade teacher wrote, Neil should cultivate a more serious attitude toward his school work.

I am the student whose 4th grade teacher wrote nothing in any of the school quarters. Which is worse, writing nothing, or lodging a complaint in the form of lightly shrouded advice?

I am the student whose 5th grade teacher wrote something good followed by something bad. Neil is a good leader. He shows that he respects the rights, dignity, and feelings of others. He is somewhat lax about completing his work, compositions, notebook, etc. He has to be encouraged and prodded.

That year also happened to be when my geography exam contained a two-part question, “What is the smallest continent?” My correct answer was “Australia.” The follow-up question asked, “In what hemisphere is the smallest continent?” I replied “Southern” and it was marked wrong. The correct answer was “Eastern.” Clearly this teacher would have never been eligible for the award you just received.

I am also the student whose 6th grade homeroom teacher wrote, Less social involvement and more academic diligence is in order.

Nobody ever said, Neil will go far or Neil shows great potential or We expect great things from Neil.

I also happen to be the student who, when he first took the SATs, got 500 in the verbal section. Allow me to remind you that a score of 500 is exceptionally average. Remarkably ordinary. Undoubtedly unremarkable. Well, five books and two magazine columns later, I received a letter in the mail from the Educational Testing Service, the creators and purveyors of the SAT. The letter asked my permission to reprint a passage from one of my books for use in their verbal exam. They were impressed with my writing style and compositional form, and wanted to use the passage for the reading comprehension section of their next exam. I did not know whether to be flattered or angry, whether to kiss the letter or to burn it, or whether any single exam should have any real meaning to anyone’s life at all.

That being said, one thing remains true. Your IQ strongly correlates with your score on an IQ test.

I also happened to be the student whose social energy had been packaged and redirected by a 6thgrade science teacher who saw my interests, supported my dreams, and served to inspire my life’s paths. Rather than complaining about who I was, she took the initiative (and the time) to help align my energies towards greater goals.

Every person in this room could tell stories of teachers in our lives who possessed a singular talent for teaching and whose influence on our lives was unmatched by all other forces in society. If this nation is to fulfill its own expectations of math and science literacy among its electorate then I encourage you to look at your students as an entire package, not as a score on an exam you administer. And don’t bring forth the smartest children in your class—you know the ones, they get straight As and win all the science fair contests—and claim that your good teaching had anything to do with it. Student’s who get straight As tend to do so with or without your help. Instead, I want you to tell me what you are doing to inspire the rest of the students in your class.

No, we do not expect, and probably do not want, every science teacher to convince all students that they should become scientists. Besides, what kind of a world would that be? Instead of debates on the second amendment’s right to bear arms we might be witnessing debates on the right to bear calculators—concealed ones, at that.

In this world, we cherish our artists, our musicians, our performers, our athletes, our journalists, and (most) politicians. Your job—our job together—is to raise the intellectual bar so that everyone who does not become a scientist will never be a victim of scientific ignorance. Want some quick examples? They say that state lotteries are a tax on the poor. This is not true. The state lotteries are a tax on all those people who never did well in mathematics. And just go up to people who do not wear seat belts in their cars. Don’t ask why they don’t wear them. Just ask if they have ever take a course in physics, which is where you learn about inertia and how things in motion tend to stay in motion. Their answer will be no.

At the conclusion of this week’s festivities, go back to your home states, go back to your municipalities, go back to your urban, suburban, and rural schools and inspire all the children you can with your enthusiasm and your excitement for math and science.

Apart from it being good for the student, and good for the Nation, one of those children—one who you inspired—may rise up and join the ranks of leading scientists and educators. One of those children, after becoming a scientist and educator just might be invited to Washington, DC—to the State Department—to address an audience of the Nation’s finest teachers.

And in the address, that person who you touched may just say, with a grateful tear in his eye, thank you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, 1999