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Part of the Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011 series

When President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech in January 2011, he spoke of the importance of science and technology research and education to the U.S. -- past, present, and future:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. (emphasis mine)

It wasn't the first time the President invoked Sputnik to talk about our need to spend more, focus more on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education and STEM careers. And it was hardly the last. The metaphor of the Space Race permeated many of his education speeches this year (including one I attended in February at Intel's Hillsboro, Oregon plant).

That metaphor also extended to the administration's proposal for a new education technology agency: ARPA-ED. $90 million was earmarked in the President's 2012 budget for the new agency, which according to the Department of Education, would fund both private and public research by industry, universities, and other organizations to work on projects such as personalized digital tutors, adaptive learning platforms, and game-based learning (PDF).

If the name ARPA-ED sounds familiar, it's deliberately so, echoing DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA was established in the 1950s as a response to the Sputnik launch and was meant to protect the United States' technological supremacy. Although it's a Defense Department agency, DARPA research isn't tied to specific military missions, but it has been responsible for a number of technological innovations with sweeping implications, including ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet. By creating a new, similarly-named agency, the Obama Administration hopes to foster that sort of technological innovation in education.

I must say, it does feel a bit odd to turn to Cold War-era rhetoric to describe the necessity for funding STEM education. But I get it. We're moving into an election year, so Cold War-era rhetoric it is.

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Audrey Watters


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