Published Online: December 16, 2005

Study Sees U.S. as Competitive in Math and Science

Business leaders and politicians in the United States could be scaring away high school students from pursuing mathematics and science careers by focusing the spotlight on the large numbers of engineers produced by India and China and the loss of U.S. jobs to outsourcing, the author of a new report says.

The report from Duke University in Durham, N.C., says the United States produced 70,000 engineers in 2004, compared with China, which, in the same year, produced 600,000, and India, which produced 350,000. Even though the total numbers are larger for China and India, the United States actually produces more engineers per capita than both those countries, the report points out.

“But when all the politicians and everyone else is going around saying it will be 70,000 of us against 1 million from China and India, any smart high school student would question why should I get into engineering when my job is going to be outsourced?” said Vivek Wadhwa, a co-author of the study and an adjunct professor at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. “We are scaring children away from doing exactly what we want them to be doing.”

According to the report, almost one-third of the world’s science and engineering graduates are employed in the United States, 35 percent of science and engineering articles are published in this country, and the United States also accounts for 40 percent of the world’s research and development expenditure.

“It is clear that the U.S. is not in the desperate state that is routinely portrayed. The country needs to maintain its focus on improving the quality of education and maintain its momentum, but there is no imminent crisis,” concludes the Duke University report, which used data from the departments of education in the United States and China, and from the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, the chamber of commerce for India’s information-technology industry.

‘Many Opportunities’

A Business Roundtable report in July warned about a decline in the number of students studying math, science, technology and engineering in the United States, and called for upgrading math and science teaching in elementary and secondary schools.

“If you look at the field as a whole—science, technology, engineering and math—you just don’t see the numbers of students who are interested in going into these fields and interested in graduating in these fields,” said Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Washington-based Business Roundtable.

But she disagreed that students would be scared off by reports of outsourcing and the competition from abroad, adding that while there could be “a perception that your job may be at risk, we have to get out there and help young people understand there are many opportunities in the U.S. and they will continue to grow.”

Francis “Skip” Fennell, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, based in Reston, Va., said the heightened awareness of the need to be competitive worldwide “is hopefully going to bring about greater interest among students.”

He said the crisis in math and science education is partly fueled by the difficulty of keeping teachers in those subjects in schools, because they often move on to more lucrative opportunities in other fields.

“We need more teachers to think about math as a career for teaching, and we need to find ways to retain such teachers,” he said.

Mr. Wadhwa said that despite the upbeat tone of his report, he believes there is a need for improvement. “The numbers [of students taking up math and science] have been static, and the numbers of engineers hasn’t gone up substantially for several years now,” he said, adding that for the last 10 years the United States has been compensating by bringing in talent from overseas.

“Today 30 to 40 percent of students in engineering schools are foreigners,” he said. “We need more Americans getting into science and engineering. If we can’t get Americans interested, how can we attract the best students from the rest of the world?”

Still, he added, the overall picture is positive, and when evaluated against India and China on a level playing field, the United States is producing a competitive number of engineers, computer scientists, and information-technology specialists.

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