Editor’s note: Jim Goodnight, co-founder and chief executive officer at SAS, recently used the 50th anniversary of the Soviet “Sputnik” satellite launch to call for renewed emphasis on science and technology in America’s schools. WRAL Local Tech asked permission to reprint Goodnight’s speech at the National Workshop on Stimulating and Sustaining Excitement and Discovery in K-12 (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) STEM Education at the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.

CARY – When I was in ninth grade in Wilmington, N.C. a remarkable event occurred. The Soviets launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Our country was shocked!

We thought we were the greatest nation on earth, but suddenly realized that if they could put a satellite in orbit, they could rain down their nuclear weapons on us at the press of a button.

The country mobilized; Congress mobilized. They passed the National Defense Education Act, and President Eisenhower signed it in 1958. It gave money and grants to universities, high schools, middle schools, even private schools to get involved with more science and math, and to fund research labs. It poured money into our school systems to stimulate teaching and interest in engineering.

What we saw was really the beginning of Silicon Valley and the technology boom in this country.

To borrow a Tom Clancy book title, Sputnik signaled a “clear and present danger.” Kids were going off to college almost as if they were going off to war. I came to N.C. State to major in mathematics, and half way through my master’s degree I took a year off to work on the Apollo program, because I wanted to help us catch up in space.

But that clear and present danger is not here today. It’s a slowly growing problem that we haven’t really faced up to, that we are rapidly losing our lead in this war for minds. The Cold War is over. The arms race is over. It’s now a mind race.

Countries like China, India, and Korea have invested heavily in education over the last decade. They are now producing more scientists and engineers than we are. It is my concern that as we look to the future, innovation is going to come from the other side of the world.

Lacking a clear and present danger, the American education system is not mobilizing to support science, technology, engineering and math. Today’s generation of kids is the most technology savvy group that this country has ever produced. They are born with an iPod in one hand and a cell phone in another. They’re text messaging, e-mailing, instant messaging. They’re on MySpace, YouTube & Google. They’ve got Nintendo Wiis, Game Boys, Play Stations.

Their world is one of total interactivity. They’re in constant communication with each other, but when they go to school, they are told to leave those “toys” at home. They’re not to be used in school. Instead, the system continues teaching as if these kids belong to the last century, by standing in front of a blackboard.

Education has not changed, and that’s a problem. It was a good system when I came through, but today’s kids have changed, and that’s the part that educators are not realizing. It’s the kids that have changed, and our education system needs to change along with them.

Again, they are the most technologically savvy group of kids we’ve ever had; we’ve got to take advantage of that.

(Reprinted with permission of SAS Institute)