- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

Some events are forever etched in our collective memory. Sept. 11, 2001. The assassination of President Kennedy. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Americans know exactly where they were at those pivotal moments, whether tragic or joyful. Among such milestones was Apollo 11, the first NASA mission to land a human on the moon. On July 20, 1969, shortly before 11 p.m. EDT, when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the dusty lunar surface, the United States reached a pinnacle of scientific exploration enabled by engineering ingenuity. We will mark the 40th anniversary of that historic event tomorrow.

We benefit every day from innovations developed by NASA engineers and astronauts. President Obama recently credited the Apollo program with technologies improving kidney dialysis and water purification, energy-saving building materials, and sensors to test for hazardous gases.

Other inventions derived from NASA research span computer programs that monitor air quality and provide Internet access, flat-screen televisions, trash compactors, weather-forecasting tools, shock-absorbing running shoes, medical devices from voice-controlled wheelchairs to laser angioplasty, and safety equipment including lightweight oxygen tanks used by firefighters.

But times have changed. Teachers no longer usher students into auditoriums to watch wide-eyed as the space shuttle takes flight. Today, many kids dream of being pop stars when they grow up, not astronauts.

It is no secret that here in the United States, we are not doing enough to motivate the next generation of scientists and engineers or to engage the public in conversations about the impact of science and technology on society, the environment and daily lives.

Perhaps we need to take a look back in order to move forward.

The urge to invent and to push the limits is part of the American spirit. In the 1800s, pioneers looking for a better life drove west with their families and a few possessions in covered wagons.

In 1903, two brothers challenged gravity on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C. — convinced that human beings could fly. Others have penetrated the far reaches of the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope. Just last month, a new robotic vehicle successfully reached the deepest part of the world’s oceans to investigate some of the richest geological and biological systems on Earth. Now we are working to harness the wind and the sun to power our homes, developing new therapies to fight disease, and driving cars that rely on alternative energy sources. But there is more to be done.

I believe that molding the explorers and inventors of tomorrow hinges on engaging children today in science, technology and engineering — igniting and then fostering their natural curiosity about how things work.

Happily, children practically emerge from the womb fascinated by engineering and the principles of functional design, However, to encourage those activities, parents, schoolteachers and educators everywhere must embrace their inherent role as influencers.

I hope the 40th anniversary tomorrow of Apollo 11’s historic mission will remind us all of the need to inspire our children to probe, to question, to challenge, to create.

Ioannis N. Miaoulis is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, a member of the NASA Advisory Council and also a former dean of Tufts University’s engineering school.