SAN FRANCISCO – Gilas Pilipinas just wrapped up an incredible run at the Asian championship. They deserve all the praise they’ve received, despite not winning the gold.
The last time the Philippines won the Asian championship was in 1986. Before that, the Philippines last won in 1973 when the country was still indisputably a dominant force in Asian basketball.
I remember the ’70s when the only teams we had to worry about were Japan and South Korea. But then other countries caught up and got stronger, led by China. That put an end to those years of Filipino basketball dominance.
But this year’s victories show that the country can steadily rebuild and adapt to a more competitive world of basketball. And that’s probably true in another arena: math.
Filipinos know about the exploits of Jason Castro and Jimm Alapag, but have probably not heard of Jan Kendrick Ong and Naomi Anne King.
They’re among the Filipino kids who won gold medals at the recent Singapore International Mathematics Contest.
Gilas Pilipinas grabbed the silver at FIBA Asia. These Filipino children reaped 23 golds, 45 silvers and 93 bronze medals. And they beat the country that has long dominated this competition, China.
It’s an inspiring victory, one that the country can build on to improve math education in the country and most important of all, to get young people excited about math, and even science and technology, in general.
Getting people excited about basketball has never been hard in a basketball-crazy country where clinics and tournaments from Manila to the smallest barrios in the archipelago are fairly easy to organize.
And it routinely gets a boost from superstars like Filipino American coach Eric Spoelstra who led the Miami Heat to back-to-back NBA championships and who has been a regular visitor to the Philippines.
Perhaps the Filipino triumph in the math competition in Singapore could also boost similar efforts to foster interest in math and science education.
This is particularly important at a time when a country’s strength in these fields is playing an increasingly important role in the global economy.
The tech industry is still expanding. The growth of business process outsourcing in the Philippines shows this. But eventually, the Philippines’ success in playing an expanded role in the tech world hinges on having a better-prepared, better-educated workforce – on having a pool of young people who are excited about math, science and technology.
This takes time. The victory of those kids in in Singapore was an important step. There are lessons to be learned from other countries, including China and Singapore.
And there are even lessons from the United States where leaders are now acknowledging the importance of thinking ahead, many years ahead. For when it comes to math and science, there’s a growing fear that the US is falling behind.
That’s why this year, business and tech leaders from Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, kicked off a campaign aimed at getting more American children interested in software and software programming.
The effort was meant to address a pressing problem: the percentage of US college graduates with a computer science degree has been shrinking and the American educational system has been unable to meet the strong demand for computer scientists in the US.
In fact, business and technology celebrities aren’t the only ones pushing this effort. Even pop culture icons are joining the campaign.
One of them is music star will.i.am, friend and partner of Filipino star Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas, who also hopes to make coding look cool to kids.
When not busy with his showbiz career, will.i.am actually takes coding classes. On the video, he says, “Great coders are today’s rock stars.”
Even a basketball star is helping out.
Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat is known for helping Miami Heat win another championship. But basketball is not the only thing he cares about.
Like will.i.am, the 6’11’’ star also thinks software programming is cool.
“I was in an after-school group called ‘The Whiz Kids’ and when people found out, they laughed at me,” he says on the promotional video. “And I’m like, ‘Man, you know, I don’t care. I’m learning a lot.”
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