Mehran Mohebbi sent an e-mail to his Student Partnership for the Advancement of Cosmic Exploration co-founders over Thanksgiving break.
He had news. Big news. He asked them all to meet on Monday when they returned to campus.
“Someone very important is coming,” he told them once they had all gathered.
Barrack Obama? One suggested.
It took about 30 seconds for the significance to sink in, then the room erupted in whoops and cheers and gasps.
Augustine, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockhead Martin Corp., the certified “man” in the aerospace world, was coming to West Virginia University as a speaker for the 2010 David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas, and the SPACE students were to act as his humble hosts: giving him tours of campus, dining with him and discussing their research.
It was, they agreed, the most exciting thing that had ever happened in the SPACE program.
“He’s a very important guy,” Mohebbi said. “We’re just hoping to impress him,”
Augustine, who has 23 honorary degrees from some of the country’s most prestigious institutions and five Distinguished Service Medals from the Department of Defense, was struck by the sheer knowledge and passion of the students in the SPACE program.
“I was enormously impressed,” Augustine said. “This is my idea of a great way to spend a day.”
That day – Thursday – began with a meeting at the Blaney House with WVU President James P. Clements and ended with a speech in the Mountainlair Ballrooms. But in between, Augustine got to do what Augustine likes to do best: watch innovation at work.
The SPACE students took him on a whirlwind tour of the engineering and physics departments, stopping to show off some of the University’s most impressive research, including unmanned aerial vehicles that engineering students are testing as part of a project for NASA, and a condensed matter physics lab that has earned thousands of dollars in federal funding.
Augustine also met with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students from WVU’s College of Human Resources and Education to talk about the importance of instilling a love for learning in the next generation.
It’s a subject that Augustine has dedicated his retirement years to studying. He is part of a governmental team that has been charged with investigating American competitiveness in the science and technology fields, and providing suggestions for progress. The resulting testimony, known as the “Gathering Storm Report,” urged the government to, among other things, improve K-12 education and strengthen the nation’s commitment to basic research, especially at the university level.
Augustine outlined the specifics of the report with the audience in what he warned was, “not a terribly uplifting talk.”
Americans, he said, are quietly falling behind the rest of the world in terms of education and innovation. He called the performance of American K-12 students abysmal and worried that only scientists and engineers make up only 4 percent of the nation’s workforce, an alarming number of whom are from other countries. In addition, he said the professors charged with training the next generation of scientists and engineers are increasingly being recruited overseas.
It’s time, Augustine said, that Americans began to take stock of their future and find the people who are willing to compete in a global workforce, using research and innovation as a springboard for success.
“It’s a dreadful mistake to be complacent,” he said. “No nation has the right to assume continued prosperity.”
Though he talked of a growing complacency among American youth, he said, much to the students’ delight, that the members of WVU’s SPACE program were not among the self-satisfied.
“The kind of people I’ve been with today won’t have any trouble,” he predicted.
Augustine was the sixth speaker at the Festival of Ideas. The lecture series is scheduled to feature nine events and seven outstanding professionals. To view the complete 2010 schedule, visit http://festivalofideas.wvu.edu
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