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Industry Must Lead the Fight To Improve Technological Literacy

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Business and industry must lead the way in bringing about needed improvements in the scientific and technological literacy of our youth.

The basic problems are the insufficient number of engineering graduates in this country and the struggles our schools face in updating their facilities and overcoming shortages of qualified faculty. The restoration of competent, fully certified mathematics and science staffs throughout all levels of our education system should be the highest-priority goal.

What can we do?

Industry must begin by urging parents to reclaim their role as principal advisers to their children on course selection. Industry must get into the classroom and meet with parents; business people must be quite blunt about how quickly, and drastically, the work environment is changing. In the next 20 years, the share of the work force employed in manufacturing is expected to drop from 21 percent to less than 10 percent. While those jobs are lost, millions of others will be created in computer and computer-related fields.

Industry representatives should stress to parents that a background in math and science widens the range of career options for their children. Every job in the electronics area, for example, requires some background in physics.

The message has to be made loud and clear. Your children will not make it in the world if you continue to allow easy courses to substitute for the more rigorous courses such as algebra, geometry, chemistry, biology, and physics. Your children will not make it if they review arithmetic in junior high while Japanese students are studying basic algebra and geometry. Your children will not make it if only one year of math and one year of science are acceptable as secondary-school graduation requirements, as is the case in 35 states today.

A 1982 Northwestern University report discusses the opportunities that could be available for youths who are pointed in the right direction: 112 corporations responding to a survey predicted an increase of 31 percent in their demand for technical graduates by 1987. The critical areas cited were in the electrical, mechanical, and computer-science fields.

Industry representatives must make parents understand that a "good start" for their children can mean higher taxes to pay for upgraded curricula and higher salaries for teachers. Salaries for teachers are a national disgrace. As the recent report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching noted, they are now among the nation's lowest-paid professionals, averaging $20,500 in salary. Many jobs in industry that do not require a college education, such as machine operation and manufacturing inspection, pay better than that.

When the time comes for boards of education to sell budgets calling for upgraded curricula and higher salaries, there is nothing wrong with industry joining in as often as possible to advise the community of the current facts of life.

What of our responsibility to the pre-college students themselves? The task here, clearly, is to show these students that they are not being taught math and science in a vacuum, that there is a relationship between what they are asked to study and the workplace. Algebra and geometry must be understood by industry tradesmen as well as by engineers.

One way to accomplish this is to bring high-school students into manufacturing sites to hear from management, skilled technicians, and shirt-sleeve engineers that mathematics is very much a part of life outside the classroom.

In addition, companies with their own training programs should invite teachers to these classes so they can see for themselves how the elements of algebra and geometry are being applied.

Industry should free more of its engineers and scientists to visit high schools to discuss the use of math and science, and we should inform students of the need for engineering graduates and the outstanding career opportunities available for engineers.

Involvement by industry in curriculum development is a must. Without it, no effort to help increase public awareness of the need, no program to upgrade high-school graduation requirements, and no program to develop and retain more college-level math and science instructors would be complete.

Industry must offer to meet with teachers to suggest additions and revisions to curricula to achieve the proper emphasis on science and technology. Our engineers and scientists also must offer to review textbooks and curriculum guides to help relate them to the real work of business today. Industry can, for example, easily pinpoint what is out-of-date in a course guide.

Obviously, such an effort puts industry on the teacher's turf, and tact is required to make it clear to educators that we are not pushing a return to a work-oriented education at the expense of the humanities.

And we are not suggesting abandonment of a balanced education. No company is looking for one-dimensional engineers or scientists who can solve any technical problem but are incapable of explaining their solution in proper and clear English. Excellent ideas often are wasted because their impact and importance are not properly explained and sold to decision-makers.

Industry's motive for greater collaboration with educators is, of course, "enlightened self-interest." Colleges are finding it difficult to meet industry's demands for engineers because many of the schools don't have sufficient faculty. About 10 percent of the 16,000 engineering-faculty positions are vacant at the moment in the United States. Worse, in computer science, where there is a growing need, 16 percent of the faculty positions are unfilled.

To do no more than replace engineering professors lost through attrition, schools need about 1,000 new Ph.D.'s a year--but only about 600 are actually joining faculties. As a result, 20 of the top engineering schools in the country have put caps on admission to their programs.

One quick action industry could take would be to increase our funding of fellowships at key engineering institutions. Such fellowships enable promising graduate students to provide high-quality instruction to undergraduates while pursuing their doctorates. Fellowships also direct the career interest of superior students toward academia and, accordingly, should only be intended for students with a long-term commitment to teaching.

Industry can also fund research centers on campuses where teachers, talented business people, and students can work together on innovative disciplines of the future, such as robotics and micro-electronics.

Industry collaboration with educators could also take the form of having highly qualified employees sent to schools on voluntary teaching assignments.

These so-called "adjunct faculty" arrangements would be at least a partial response to the loss of faculty members to industry. Industry, without a doubt, is somewhat responsible for creating the faculty drain, because it usually pays engineers better than colleges do, and because it often hires the cream of the crop--the very engineers who might have become the best teachers. Therefore, industry must become part of the solution.

In addition to providing fellowships and "adjunct faculty," industry can help stem the loss of faculty by sponsoring serious programs of financial support and academic encouragement. Industry funding would help universities pay their faculties competitive salaries. Academic encouragement can take the form of summer employment for selected faculty members or the donation of surplus high-technology equipment to engineering departments.

Business can help. Business must help. Business, when we think about it, is the principal "end-user" of education. Therefore, it must become a prime mover in efforts to improve it.

Vol. 03, Issue 09, Page 20

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