Wednesday, July 16, 2008

U.S. Falling Behind STEM Education Goals

CNN is reporting that the U.S. is lagging behind goals set three years ago by a consortium of business groups to increase college graduations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields by 2015. Apparently, the number of bachelor's destrees awarded in the U.S. each year in those fields has stalled at about 225,000, well short of the groups' goal of 400,000.

However, it's only been three years. The people graduating this year were already in college when these goals were set. So unless part of their strategy has been to get people to switch majors, we'd be unlikely to see much in the way of results by now. As Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, points out in the article, "It still takes a minimum of 17 years to produce an engineer if you consider K-12 plus four years of colleges."

Which begs the question of how these business groups thought that they'd be able to double the number of graduates in only 10 years. Now, I agree that we need to increase graduates in these fields in order to remain competitive on the world stage—and let's not forget that many of the 225,000 graduates we're producing now in these fields are actually foreign students—but I don't think we can expect a network of business groups to say that it needs to happen and have it magically happen overnight. It's going to take time and hard work, and both of those are going on right now.

The future is coming, and the U.S., I suspect, will continue to lead the way in these fields for quite a while yet.


Jeff said...

Unfortunately, the U.S. already is no longer leading and is falling behind -- often far behind -- in these fields for quite a while yet. All the excitement in nuclear physics is about the new European reactor, in contrast to the closure of the Stanford Linear Accelerator several years ago. If the Japanese weren't such close friends, we would really be in trouble, if only because of Sony and Toyota, who built a research facility in Detroit in an attempt to save us from ourselves (Toyota's mental power in North America is with a Canadian company). We're like Sampson after the haircut, we just haven't had to fight any Philistines just yet.

Calvin said...

This article is totally off. I don't believe that there aren't enough american scientists because we're not as smart. I believe the reason people aren't persuing those jobs is because those jobs are the primary focus of current oursourcing or the pay is being driven down from outsourcing. So if you what more scientist pay for them and you get the results more people becoming interested.

Jeff said...

A host of public and private groups -- NSF, NIH, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Microsoft, to name a few -- offer lucrative salaries to graduate students! (I'm talking 40-60K just to attend grad school). It is not working -- most of this money is not being used. Scientists are getting triple-digit salaries, but still most are foreign-born. There are high-profile grad programs in science and engineering that have no American students. Studies have shown that most american engineers go into sales, and hard fact is that most senior design, engineering, technical support at most tech companies is done by foreign-born scientists and engineers.

Want more scary facts (yes, absolutely true facts), then read "Rising above the Gathering Storm," a study commissioned by Lamar Alexander and other "true repubicans."

Almighty mammon can't fix this problem.

Matthew Saroff said...

As I post in my blog, the problem is that we have policies that are intended to reduce pay for technical degrees, such as H1B and L1 visas.

People with technical degrees can do the math, and realize that they can have better lives, or at least more money, by going into law, or business administration, etc.

If you want more technical graduates, you have to pay them more.

Matt Metcalf said...

"If you want more technical graduates, you have to pay them more."

I couldn't agree more, Matthew (and not just because I work in a technical field myself). The irony is that the people who are claiming that we need more of these, this consortium of business groups, is exactly the people who are in a position to do something about the pay situation.

Anonymous said...

Science just doesn't pay. That's the bottom line, and that's why fewer people are going into it (not to mention the fact that a PhD takes a long, long time). I got my PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, which has an average time to degree of about 6 years (which is on the short side). I can tell you that most of my colleagues and associates who didn't go into extremely low-paying post-doc positions had a very hard time finding work (not to mention work that pays well). Lawyers are making >$100k right out of law school. MBA-types are making about the same. Doctors are making lots of money, too. Scientists are making squat in comparison; and they get "real" jobs when they are much older (>30 years old). The system has to change before young, smart, ambitious people will go into science in droves.

Jeff said...

Hey, guys and gals. Read my posts. You're wrong, which no shame, unless you ignore the truth.

I'm in the trenches here. I know firsthand. You guys are ignoring the truth. We can't buy our way out -- that approach has now failed in several different forms. You're advocating something that failed over a decade ago.

Bottom line: American's do not major in math and science -- we've always relied on the rest of the world to come here and think for us. But they are no longer coming, and we aren't changing our ways.

Matt Metcalf said...

I posted a follow-up to this post and discussion:

STEM Education Follow-Up.