Mortimer B. Zuckerman

America must become more competitive in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields

Look what we take for granted in our everyday lives: the Internet and cellphones, MRI scanners and microwave ovens, FM radio and transistorized hearing aids, lasers at the checkout counter, and cancer treatments made from bacteria we've programmed for benevolence. All these American innovations and thousands more come to us from science, mathematics, engineering, and technology -- no, let's rephrase that: They came to us from people schooled in those disciplines and from people associated with them who supplied the entrepreneurial energies and capital that the scientist, engineer, and technologist may have lacked.

The men and women who will make America's tomorrow are in school and college today. They are the human capital at the core of any productive economy. And here's a fact about them. There are too few of these people in the scientific disciplines. America, the leader, now lags.

The National Academies, the nonprofit institutions that provide expert advice on science and technology, warned years ago that the United States would continue to lose ground to foreign economic rivals unless the quality of its math and science education were improved. The experts reported last year that among 29 wealthy countries, the United States ranked 27th in the proportion of college students with degrees in science and engineering. And among developed countries, the United States ranks 31st in math and 23rd in science, not to mention the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers. American 12th graders were near the bottom of students from 20 nations assessed in advanced math and physics. Large parts of our student population are literally being deprived of a top-notch education.

A highly educated and skilled labor force is what drives innovation and production. But think also of the individuals and what they can derive through upward mobility, income growth for families, and access to opportunity. As the nation shifts into a new, non-industrial economy, we will need a well-trained, technically competent workforce to manage and staff the science and technology businesses that create the high-paying jobs.

Our future depends on the strength of our scientific spine. Spelled out, it's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, as it has become known. The skills derived from a STEM education are the mission-critical elements of the jobs of tomorrow, for they are directly linked to economic productivity and competitive products.

The National Academies are urging the government to take action on several fronts: Early childhood education should be improved, public school math and science curriculums should be strengthened, with vastly more teacher training in these areas, and both the government and colleges should provide more financial and academic support to students who excel in STEM.

The Academies want to increase the number of qualified math and science teachers by 10,000 annually. Why? Because 15 years of research has shown that of everything within the control of a school, the factor with the most effect on learning is the quality and effectiveness of teachers. So if we want our students to better understand math and science, we must also find ways to improve our teachers' knowledge of these subjects. This means we are going to have to rethink the process of recruiting, evaluating, and supporting these kinds of teachers. Recent studies indicate that about 30 percent of high school math students and 60 percent of those in the physical sciences are taught by instructors who either did not major in the subject or are not certified to teach it. As Yolie Flores, CEO of the Communities for Teaching Excellence and a former school board member in Los Angeles, has pointed out: How can we expect our students to master the content when their teachers may not have mastered it? When they can't even prepare lessons in the subject because they lack a background of knowledge in it? It is critical to develop STEM teachers with a deep knowledge of content and understanding of the pedagogy.

There are a variety of programs we must push. For example, there is real potential in the idea of a "Master Teacher Corps" that recognizes and rewards strong instructors in the STEM fields. There is also a proposal from White House advisers to create more STEM-focused schools. Notable is a nonprofit program called Math for America, founded by James Simons, an award-winning mathematician who went on to create an enormously successful investment firm. The program has provided funding for bonuses and stipends for high school STEM teachers. The MacArthur Foundation has given out prizes to developers of video games that encourage learning science and math. Cable TV's Science Channel airs several hours of science programming so that students have a ready means to learn more about it in their after-school hours.

As President Obama has noted, nations like China and India have realized that by making some changes, they could compete in the new world. That's why "they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science," and are investing in research and new technologies. It is no surprise that those countries have emerged. We are up against the old cliché of another Sputnik moment, when the Soviets beat us into space by launching the Sputnik satellite. At that point, we didn't know how we could beat them to the moon, but we made a vow to invest in research and education. The result? We didn't merely excel past the Soviets, we generated a wave of discoveries that created new industries and millions of jobs. We are once again at another Sputnik moment. What can we do? Here's where we should start:

-- Invest more in community colleges.

They can dramatically increase the pool of skilled workers available to manufacturers. Enrollments are up, as displaced workers pursue new training and high school graduates seek further education before entering the labor market. Some 12 million students are enrolled in community colleges and many of them are learning practical, job-related skills. In a recent survey, nearly a third of this country's manufacturing companies reported having trouble finding enough skilled workers, so it is no wonder that we continue to lose ground to foreign competitors in the key high-tech growth areas of the future. We simply cannot continue to allow our education in the STEM fields to lag behind what's happening in Asia and Europe.

-- Welcome talent.

We have a lot of unexplored talent, and there is a massive reservoir of talent we can enlist from abroad. Remember that in the past the United States recruited Europe's top experts for our nuclear programs, bringing in scientists such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller. We need to consider how we can generate such an effect all over again, with an immigration policy to attract the brains, talent, and special skills that will enhance American innovation and competitiveness.

The extraordinary fact is that over 25 percent of America's international patents were based on the work of immigrants. In a recent span, 33 percent of the Ph.D.'s and 57 percent of all of the post-doctorates in science and engineering at U.S. universities were awarded to foreign-born students. Sixty percent of these foreign students stay in the United States for at least 10 years; the highest stay rate, surprisingly enough, was among Chinese students. After all, we boast 13 of the top 20 universities in the world, and we also dominate R&D spending, accounting for 33 percent of global spending. That's about the same as Asia, so this gives us the ability to attract some of the world's greatest talent and to keep them.

-- Grant more visas.

It is very shortsighted to still keep a tight grip on the number of H-1B visas, which are given to specially talented foreigners. Many have advocated an easement, but the forces of nativism have so far been more powerful. Increasing the number of visas would signal to the world employment markets that the United States is putting performance over other considerations in the race for economic productivity.

-- Train more teachers.

We should commit to preparing 100,000 new teachers in the STEM fields. Let's devise a state-by-state scorecard to assess the condition of STEM education nationwide and create a mechanism to measure the effectiveness of STEM programs.

The federal government has failed to address these issues. It has lacked a coherent and sufficient leadership for STEM education and the means to implement an effective program.

Today our once unchallenged position in innovation is at risk, at a time when international competition is on the upswing and the U.S. economy is still reeling from the deep recession. There is no substitute for action by the public sector to support education, teacher training, and universities and community colleges that excel in the critical areas of science and technology.

The examples of American know-how I mentioned at the beginning of this column are only a sample from our storied history. Who knows what we can do if we put our minds now to educating the makers of tomorrow.


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Why Math and Science Education Means More Jobs