Rich Cooper

Apr 27, 2010

Nurturing our Roots – K-12 Education & Homeland Security

Secretary Napolitano has spent considerable time of late getting in front of higher education leaders and students. From her speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School on resilience to meeting with nearly ten university presidents, a significant portion of her valuable time has been spent talking about DHS and the homeland security community’s critical needs that will have to be satisfied by the next generation’s workforce.  

The need and demand for a highly skilled and qualified homeland workforce is tremendous. We need workers to safeguard our cyber networks, public health professionals to help our communities monitor and respond to biological events, and other technically demanding positions that can make our infrastructures safer and more resilient to all-hazards. The fact that the Secretary and other members of her leadership team have taken the time to do these meetings says a lot about their priorities. Each of them, like their predecessors in the Bush Administration, recognize that they only have their jobs for a defined period, and it is extremely important in the time they have to make investments in assets that bode well for the department as well as the nation’s future.

Education is an investment that has never failed anyone; however, though DHS’ education investments (e.g., through the S&T-sponsored University Centers of Excellence Program, graduate fellowships, etc.) and the department’s public and private exchanges are significant and promising, its investments are only reaching the leaves at top of the plant while overlooking the nourishment of its roots. By roots I mean K-12 education.

We cannot hope to build a resilient society and create a culture of preparedness if we do not look after the roots of our nation’s educational system. Every Administration, including the current one, has offered plans and strategies for addressing the increasing gaps our nation has when it comes to highly technical jobs. Friendly and unfriendly nations (e.g., China, India, Pakistan and others) produce more engineers and scientists per year than we can forge in a single generation.  

Additionally when you look at America’s universities, a significant number of students enrolled in the highly technical disciplines are foreign born and are increasingly taking their newfound skills to places other than the United States. Our country’s economic and national security is imperiled when this occurs and so is our homeland security.

That has to change and investing in America’s K-12 teachers is a way to do it.

There is an imperative need for our country to invest in the educational structures that enable students to get into higher education institutions in the first place. That comes from putting money into the training and compensation for K-12 teachers, especially those in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.  

Without a technically sound society, successful preparedness and mitigation cannot occur. It should be noted that at the core of every homeland hazard is science and technology.  Whether natural or human-caused disasters, every threat originates from some scientific or technological phenomenon. While politics, history and economics may be the first things that people think of when one of these unfortunate incidents occurs, without some application of science or technology, none of these incidents occur. The same holds true for the solutions to these always present threats; they too are based in science and technology.

While federal investments by DHS and the Obama Administration have increased to attract new, technically versed talent to serve in critical areas, investments by these same parties into educators that can develop future talent are a must. The K-12 educational years are the foundation for interest, enthusiasm and technical competence; they prepare students for the rigors and challenges that come with higher education. Without such a foundation, the talent needed to serve our nation’s interests in major areas will be unfulfilled, leaving our preparedness and response abilities lacking.

It should also be recognized that all of DHS’ components and mission areas engage in public outreach to help the public better understand their respective roles. Matching these outreach efforts to the unique needs of educators can help build a culture of preparedness in rising generations of students. Let’s face facts – real homeland security occurs in places far from Washington DC and the Beltway. It occurs in the towns across the country facing hazards that are as similar as they are different from one another. Engaging educators in helping young minds understand the threats forges the creativity and resolve to mitigate them and be resilient.

As the Hart-Rudman Commission Report concluded in January 2001:

The inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine. American national leadership must understand these deficiencies as threats to national security. If we do not invest heavily and wisely in rebuilding these two core strengths, America will be incapable of maintaining its global position long into the 21st century.

There is no facet of American life left untouched by this new experiment called homeland security. As such, aiding the development of its next generation of practioners is in DHS and nation’s best interests and considering its foundations is a worthy and rewarding investment. By investing in standards-based educational curricula and showing students how hard-science disciplines support the various homeland security missions, new generations of public and private sector leaders will be ready to face challenges that will happen locally, nationally and internationally.  

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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