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Smith on space, STEM & keys to success

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Rep. Lamar SmithRep. Lamar Smith’s second most favorite part of being a United States Congressman is having the authority to needle officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about accountability. However, it was the most favorite aspect of his profession that was evident last week in Bandera County.
On Thursday, Sept. 1, he spoke to students from the Medina Independent School District about the importance of studying science, space, technology and computer programming. And, as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Smith was clearly in his element.
The first part of his visit was spent touring Medina High School’s new $133,000 science lab, completed last November. What makes the lab more remarkable was that the community had raised funds for its construction after seed money was provided by the William Rudman Fund – one of 10 such educational bequests to schools throughout Texas.
Speaking about STEM – science, technology, engineering, and technology and, for the last two years, computer programs – Smith confessed he’s an example of STEM education gone awry. “I majored in physics when I started college and took a beginning course taught by the chairman of the department,” he recalled. “I soon realized I wasn’t as smart in physics as I thought I was.” Smith quickly selected another major.
However, he exhorted the students to do the opposite, saying, “Stay with the STEM subjects and study science and math. Don’t drop out. You’ll be successful, write your own ticket and make twice as much money as in other fields. Make the extra effort to study the subjects that are the future of American and the world.”
Smith also referenced a study published in Scientific American that indicated there was no difference in the abilities of boys and girls to learn science and math. “Any limitation is self-imposed and inaccurate,” he said, noting that studies showed males and females shared the same aptitude for science. “So, study STEM subjects and get ready for future jobs that will help your country.”
Smith also lamented recent statistics that emerged after a study was conducted using 38 industrialized countries. “The United States placed 21st in math and 26th in science,” he said. “That puts us in the bottom half of the nations in the study.” Reiterating a need for students to study STEM subjects, he said, “Help America compete with other countries. Major in science in college.”
Fielding questions from the floor, a teacher asked about the role of the Department of Homeland Security in relation to ISIS and continued threats of terrorism.
“The Homeland Security Committee (of which Smith is a member) was created in 2002 as the newest committee in Congress,” he explained. According to Smith, Homeland Security is charged with protecting the lives of citizens and the country.
“There have been dozens of terrorist plots that have been stopped by the FBI and CIA as well as other law enforcement agencies under the Homeland Security Department,” he said. “And there are terrorist cells operating within the country. One person is capable of causing a large loss of life. We have to be right all the time and terrorists only have to be right once.”
Smith recalled sobering testimony by a witness before a House committee. The witness showed up carrying an aluminum briefcase. At the end of his testimony, the witness said that inside the briefcase was a nuclear bomb – minus the Plutonium – large enough to kill 100,000 people.
“However, the next attack probably won’t be a nuclear device,” Smith said. “Terrorists could fly a drone over the Super Bowl and release anthrax or conduct a cyber-attack on California’s electrical grid or on Wall Street computers. We have to be constantly vigilant.”
Elected officials must also balance vigilance with citizen's right to privacy. “Constitutional safeguards and laws must be followed,” Smith said.
Medina High School senior Gabrielle Phillips thanked Smith for writing a letter of recommendation that she credited with getting her into a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) program. In turn, Smith encouraged her to apply for a NASA internship.
Warming to a space theme, he spoke about a poster in his office that featured an image taken by the Hubble telescope after it was launched 15 years ago. Photographs were taken over 24 hours on a “speck of sky” no larger than Abraham Lincoln’s eye on a penny when held at arm’s length.
“The exposed film showed 3,000 points of light in the ‘speck of sky.’ Each point of light was a galaxy that contained 200,000,000 starts.”
Smith responded to a question about disparity in funding for schools in different parts of the state.
"Is there a way to equalize funding?” a student asked.
“Essentially, this is a question that should be asked to your Texas Legislators,” Smith answered. “Some districts will always have more money than others. Thank goodness Congress has no jurisdiction over that!”
Smith also told the assembled students that new STEM funding in the amount of $1 billion from Congress has been earmarked for smaller schools in the form of teacher training, scholarships and advanced degrees and extra-curricular activities. “This will increase options and the funding should be released by next year,” Smith said.
Despite having conveniently “run out of time,” he spoke about the upcoming presidential election. “For the first time in 40 years, this election will determine the future of two of the three branches of government – Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States. During the next several years, the president will appoint three members to the Supreme Court and that will shape America for the next generation.
“As for the Legislative Branch, the majority party will make decisions on healthcare, regulations, gun control, religion and the environment. This will be an important election and polls indicate it could be close.”
In closing, Smith shared with the students some life secrets to success. “Success is determined by hard work and persistence, not by IQ,” he said. “Commitment is also key to a person’s success. Do what you say you’re going to do. People will have confidence in you and consider you a leader.”