Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Engineering, Science and Math: Whither Goest the US?

Several reports depicting the problem in US Science, Math and Engineering have just been released and a brief summary in Science this week.

The summary of reports is as follows:

The heftier report—both in scope and potential clout—comes from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology ( Despite its pedestrian title, Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America's Future, the PCAST report offers a soaring vision of how to achieve President Barack Obama's goal to lift U.S. students by the end of the decade "from the middle to the top of the pack" in the rankings on international tests. The other report (, by the policymaking body for the National Science Foundation, says the country needs to be more concerned about the high end of the student population, namely, those most likely "to become leading STEM professionals and perhaps the creators of significant breakthroughs in scientific and technological understanding."

Let us address first the problem and then the solution.

1. The main problem is that students view S&E as a dead end. Why not go into some other field and make money when say in Engineering you may find after all the work your job gets outsourced. Just look at all the software jobs, civil engineering and mechanical engineering jobs outsourced to India. Why go into a field that has zero future in the country. Yet if the US needs military high tech who will get the clearances, not anyone in India. The "future" for all the work is bleak. Then there is biotech, great potential but the pay is horrible. Then math and physics, and just how many positions for research are there, not many.

2. The second problem is examples. With the fields now dominated by new immigrants the mass of the population has no examples to follow. There are no family members or friends to look up to.

3. Third, in our current education system there are no winners and losers, we have a system where there are all winners. Competition is frowned upon and in S&E competition is what drives most students, they want to be better or the best. Thus the culture of being safeguarded is in and of itself a main encumbrance.

4. Fourth, the teachers! For the most part, except in the best of private schools, teachers are trained as teachers at teaching schools. They have no technical education. They are the lowest of the low in competence. They belong to their unions and they show up, try to avoid any conflict and then get home as fast as possible. It is not as if some math or chemistry teacher will inspire a student based upon their performance.

Now what can be done:

1. In the late 50s after Sputnik the Government and States instituted Science and Engineering scholarships. There used to be a New York State S&E Regents Scholarship which covered full tuition at any school in the state. Today we shun the best students, we try to support those at the margins. Thus step one is the reintroduction of merit. If you do well and want a science or engineering education you should have a scholarship based upon your performance. The cream rises and the cream should be praised, independent of race, sex, national origin or whatever. If we want to increase the student based, which we clearly need to do, the main hurdle is to reward performance. Every one of our other national competitors do!

2. We must do something to protect our intellectual property, namely the jobs. Manufacturing has moved across the national borders but now we see the exporting of intellectual talent as well. We as a nation support the development of increased intellectual talent in places such as China in two ways. First the obvious by have fewer people in the US and the needs being filled in say China. Second by educating the students at our best schools at our own cost and then not allowing them to stay and shipping them back to become our competition. We seek say under the Dream act to keep GED achievers who are illegal immigrants and send back PhDs who become our greatest long term threats. Somehow we have the balance in the wrong direction.

3. Third, teachers, teachers, teachers. Allow people with PhDs in their specialties to teach, especially if they do not have any teachers certificate. The classic example is that one who may have been a Professor at several major US institutions could not teach high school biology. Why, because they did not have an audio-visual aids course! Also get rid of teachers unions, especially for the non teacher trained teachers.

Do any of these reports discuss these issues, I am afraid not. The reports are politically correct pablum, just have the government spend more! Pay teachers more. The problem is you have the wrong teachers, and the last thing you want to do is institutionalize the problem.