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Question: Can you describe the experience in your youth when you realized you were interested in science or math? 

John Abele: Well, I was sick when I was a kid. In fact, that’s when I said I was never going to go near any hospital again if I could avoid it. Well, I end up in the business – sort of odd. But one of the things I like is technology and gadgets and I love seeing the process of solving problems. I worked in a hardware store, actually when I was 14, and I was able to work my way up to not just being a stock person, but actually talking to customers. What I loved best is, I would ask a customer to tell me, what is it you’re trying to do; and then working with that customer to try to solve that problem. And it was usually not the way they were thinking of it, going over it to the aisle and finding the product that just does it. It was combining several things that would customize the solution for that problem that they were thinking of. And that was really a lot of fun and rewarding. Not only because of solving the problem, but these great relationships you have with people. 

Question: Why is K-12 science and math education so important? 

John Abele: I think that being science and math literate, and technology literate is a fundamental requirement for any liberal arts knowledge, that you cannot be an effective citizen today without having that capacity to understand. I’m not saying you have to be a scientist or an engineer, I’m saying being science literate so you can understand and appreciate, I mean, even understanding the movies and understanding plays, and books requires some science literacy. And so, I’m fascinated and passionate about making sure kids have that basic understanding, but also that they had the opportunity to go on and pursue it at a greater depth. 

Question: How do you think young people can be inspired to become leaders in science and technology? 

John Abele: I’m involved with First. First is actually a robotics competition that was started by Dean Kamen. The philosophy to do what you just said, how do you motivate kids to want to learn, is based in First, which is let’s use the sports model. Let’s not be focused on the supply side of the equation where you develop more great programs in schools. Let’s focus on the demand side of the equation. Let’s make this really fun. You’re competing in a sport, but in fact, the sport is designed so that in order to win, you’ve got to work in teams, therefore you’ve got to collaborate. You have to do more than just one little task. You’ve got to put things together with your team so that it actually works and it can play with other teams. And you’re not only going to learn to collaborate with your teammates, but the game is designed so in order to win, you have to collaborate at different times with your opponent. And that, of course, is really the way capitalism was designed. Perhaps those bankers in New York lost the lessons some place. 

But in fact, creating that environment really is a culture-changing phenomenon. And I’ve already told you how important I think culture is, but I think if you watch it, the answer to the question is watch kids go through that sort of process and environment. You’ll see kids who really had no chance, kids from inner cities where the real problem was discipline in the school, and in fact whether you’re a young girl, definitely, and some young boys, being knowledgeable is a liability in your social life. Being knowledgeable in science and math is really the kiss of death for a girl getting a date. 

But in the case of First, that’s not the case. Were actually, it’s about 30% female and about 30% minority in different areas. And the idea is, that creates a whole network of people with common shared values. And therefore, if you’re good at science, then you are high on the pecking order of what people rank very high. It’s not only just being tough that way, of winning a game. You don’t win by making the opponent lose, which is true in a lot of sports today. That’s why trash talk was invented, it’s intimidation, it’s make your opponent do worse and you’ll win. My view is, ultimately for a sustainable society, you want to constantly raise the ladder. Get better and better. And that is the environment we strive to achieve in First. And watching those kids, and they will tell you, and we’ve got 130 colleges and universities that have engineering and technology programs that provide over $12 million worth of scholarships for any kid who has gone through a First program and can meet their admission requirements. 

Why does that happen? Because everything else being equal, they say those kids do better. They’ve learned to work in a team. They’ve learned to work in a budget. They’ve learned to work in a schedule. They’ve learned how to settle debates. They have mentors of course that do that. So, that’s the environment that I think we need to provide to get more of the kids who are going to allow us to compete against the rest of the countries in the world who are getting better than we are. 

Question: How do you think the U.S. fares in K-12 science and math education compared to the rest of the world? 

John Abele: I suppose it would be inappropriate to say, we suck. But unfortunately we’ve taken a terrible, terrible downturn and the statistics I’ve quoted all over the place. They might even vary, you can argue with the numbers, but It’s more like we’re 20th out of 30, or 20th out of 25 compared to our major competitors. And that doesn’t even take into account the China’s and India’s of the world. 

Well the statistics point out that the U.S. has been declining in it’s competitiveness in a lot of different ways. One of them is this whole issue of, do you have to understand science and math? And we’ve been graduating a lot of people from high school who literally are illiterate in science and math. In the case of math it’s called innumeracy, and that sometimes shows up at high management levels. You could even argue that it showed up in Wall Street this past year or two. But in order to get around that, we need to make it desirable on the part of the kids. 

In hiring the young today, it’s very interesting; you can see the people who are in the U.S., but are foreign born. They want to learn, they want to work, whereas, with a lot of our born in the U.S. types, they are looking for the perfect life being a rock star, or bouncing a ball. And that’s not a sustainable model. 

Recorded on January 26, 2010

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