The military relies on science and tech innovations like these to stay ahead. And if students lose an interest in math and science, it could spell disaster for the U.S. Navy, with more than half of its science and tech professionals eligible for retirement by 2020 and a shrinking pool of replacements.
“Right now [the U.S.] are the leaders in technology -- military and otherwise -- but there are some concerning signs on the horizon that we are not filling up the pipeline,” secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told FoxNews.com.
“This is important to the entire country,” Mabus said, pointing out that private-sector industries normally leading the world in innovation are feeling the pinch, too.
To counter that decline, Mabus and the Navy announced plans Wednesday morning to invest a massive $108 million in science and technology education by 2016 -- effectively doubling its $54 million annual investment within five years.
"'We're going to double [funding] in targeted education and innovation in order to reach the maximum number of people and have the maximum impact we can,” Mabus said.
He also announced a new "strategic roadmap" in which the Navy will concentrate on programs that inspire and engage younger students, mentor and assist college-level STEM majors, and help recruit and retain professionals in the field. That help is sorely needed, said Nancy Jackson, president of the American Chemical Society.
“We need all the help we can get," Jackson told FoxNews.com. “The Navy getting involved is fantastic,” she said.
James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington -- which has nurtured many innovations that have resulted in technologies later adapted for civilian use -- says the Navy is like the canary in a coal mine.
“There are plenty of metrics showing that a smaller percent of the country’s best students are choosing these fields -- and that's a problem for society at large,” Brown told FoxNews.com. But it’s hitting the military hard: Only U.S. citizens are eligible for national security clearances, so neither the Navy nor defense companies on contract can tap highly educated foreign workers.
Mabus and Jackson are among a long list of speakers and participants in the 2011 Naval STEM Forum, taking place in Washington, D.C., Wednesday and Thursday. Also expected are representatives from the White House, the Department of Education, university deans and the defense industry.
“We're excited about the forum,” Rear Adm. Nevin P. Carr, Chief of Naval Research, told FoxNews.com. “We were fortunate to get an all-star cast … coming together to talk about how we can collaborate better, how we approach the problem effectively. The bottom line is helping to increase the future talent pool.”
For Nye, the Navy’s concerns aren’t overstated. He sees the American educational system -- as well as society -- “slacking” in math and science since the high ambitions of the space program.
“People are allowed to graduate not knowing much algebra or science,” Nye told FoxNews.com. “This is a very serious problem. The United States has achieved world eminence through this innovation. But if the U.S. doesn't innovate it will fall behind.”
What Nye calls a lack in basic algebra and science skills at the elementary level often translates into a disinterest in these subjects in high school and into college, experts say. According to a 2010 University of California, Los Angeles, study, freshman majoring in STEM are more likely to shift to another major outside the field by the end of their first year.
Less than half of those students who stick with it complete a STEM-related bachelor’s degree within four years, the study revealed.