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The Green New Deal Reveals the Dismal State of STEM Education

Does anyone know how electricity works? Or a nuclear reactor?
March 16, 2019
The Green New Deal Reveals the Dismal State of STEM Education
(Photo by TPG/Getty Images)

Much has been made of the Green New Deal. As policy, it is beyond far-fetched. Plans to eliminate air travel in a decade, to be replaced by high-speed trains, are unrealistic. Replacing fossil fuels entirely in a decade without adding nuclear power plants would be impossible without bringing the economy to a standstill.

But the GND is not merely bad policy. It also highlights a persistent failure of our higher education system: the failure to adequately educate students in the field of science and engineering.

Students can graduate from college without ever having to take a true hard science class. A graduate of an Ivy League school may never have spent a moment in a laboratory. May never have taken a basic class on electricity and magnetism. May never have taken a class on structures.

One wonders: do the people proposing to reinvent the United States’ energy economy understand how we currently generate and distribute electricity? Do they know how a wind turbine works? Do they know how an electric train works? Do they understand the basic principles of nuclear energy?

If they did, they would understand our current energy economy is the product of hundreds of years of experimentation, trial and error, and refinement. The steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, the extraction and distribution of oil and natural gas, and the development of nuclear fission reactors took decades, sometimes centuries.

These developments were not trivial. While we take natural gas in our homes for granted now, it took the development of electric arc welding to solve the problem of piping natural gas from the wellhead to the consumer. Getting electricity from its generation site to consumers without significant losses was another extremely complex problem that required the development of transformers and the use of alternating current. And designing safe nuclear reactors is an enormous challenge. It took countless scientists and engineers years of effort and expense to resolve these challenges.

Progressives who propose to eliminate these sources of energy appear blissfully ignorant of all this history. They lack an appreciation of the underlying science and its complexities. And why shouldn’t they? Many of them likely never had to take a course on any of this science.

I’d wager that many of the GND’s acolytes have never built an electric circuit on a breadboard or held a soldering iron. I’m not even sure how many of them know Ohm’s Law.

Universities need to ensure that students graduate with a true understanding and appreciation of the modern world’s technological miracles and do not take them for granted. Universities don’t know where their graduates will end up. Even those that go into non-scientific fields may find themselves making decisions with significant scientific components. Many of the politicians and policy wonks promoting the GND majored in something besides hard science or engineering. Yet here they are, pushing an engineering project whose proposed scope is unparalleled in human history.

Interestingly, progressives lacking a science education also evince a blind faith in the ability of scientists and engineers to invent our way out of problems as if on a whim. Anyone who has spent time in a laboratory understands that solving engineering problems isn’t just a matter of throwing money at the problem but a long process of trial and error, fits and starts, progress and dead ends.

Pointing to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo lunar program only further highlights the failure of science and scientific history education. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo lunar program focused on discrete tasks: building an atomic bomb and landing humans on the moon. Both efforts encountered enormous scientific and engineering challenges while focused only on these specific tasks. Imagine the innumerable scientific and engineering challenges we will face reengineering the entire energy economy from scratch.

A stronger science education might inject some humility into those breezily proposing the GND. A recognition of the complexity of many of the things we take for granted—from the construction of multistory buildings to indoor plumbing to the computer—would, one might hope, give the would-be reinventors of the American energy economy pause.

In short, anyone who proposes to comprehensively re-engineer our energy economy should have a basic understanding of its underlying science and engineering. They should know how electricity is generated. They should know how we distribute electricity and natural gas to our homes and structures, and how we regulate this distribution to avoid accidents. They should be able to explain how the high-speed rail they endlessly promote works. (And, perhaps, how it will get to Hawaii and Europe.)

American higher education must do a better job of educating students in hard science and engineering. Without improvement, the most important scientific and engineering policy decisions—such as the GND—will be made by politicians underequipped to make them.

Mike Ginsberg

Mike Ginsberg is vice president and deputy general counsel at a  defense contractor and formerly served as a senior associate general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.