Equity & Diversity

Immigrants’ Children Inhabit the Top Ranks Of Math, Science Meets

By Sean Cavanagh — September 21, 2004 3 min read
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The nation’s most talented high school seniors in science and mathematics are contemplating Einstein’s equations, neutron stars, and elliptical orbits from such recognizably all-American locales as Fresno, Calif.; Athens, Ga.; and Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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View the accompanying chart, “High Achievers.”

But many of them live in the United States as a result of their parents’ emigration from Turkey, China, Romania, and a host of other foreign nations, a study released last week finds.

Research conducted by the National Foundation for American Policy shows that 60 percent of the nation’s top science students and 65 percent of the top mathematics students are children of recent immigrants, according to an analysis of award winners in three scholastic competitions.

“The Multiplier Effect,” is available from the National Foundation for American Policy. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“The Multiplier Effect” is based on an analysis of the 2004 student finalists for the Intel Science Talent Search, the U.S. team for the International Mathematical Olym- piad, and the U.S. Physics Team, three prestigious competitions.

“There’s a very strong emphasis on education as a way to get ahead among [immigrant] families,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the foundation, who wrote the study. The commitment, he said, is “something you can trace throughout history” among new arrivals to the United States.

Mr. Anderson also attributed such students’ success partly to their parents’ insistence that they manage study time wisely. Many immigrant parents also encouraged their children to pursue mathematics and science interests, believing those skills would lead to strong career opportunities and insulate them from bias and a lack of connections in the workplace, Mr. Anderson said.

A strong percentage of the students surveyed had parents who arrived in the United States on H-1B visas, reserved for professional workers. U.S. policymakers who back overly restrictive immigration policies do so at the risk of cutting off a steady infusion of technological and scientific skill, said Mr. Anderson, whose nonprofit Arlington, Va., foundation focuses on immigration, trade, and education issues.

Influx of Talent

The recent arrivals include Andrei Munteanu, 18, a finalist for the 2004 Intel competition whose parents moved from Romania to the United States five years ago. Mr. Munteanu, who graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, this year, was named a finalist for his work in exploring the minimum distance between elliptical orbits, specifically how close asteroids can pass by Earth.

He has a prime laboratory: the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, where the Harvard University-bound student has been able to hone his theories, while working part time. His original inspiration for the project was not drawn from a textbook, but rather from the big screen: He had seen the 1998 Hollywood doomsday epic “Armageddon,” a fictional account of a heroic effort to prevent a massive asteroid from ramming into Earth.

Mr. Munteanu said his lessons in Romanian schools were noticeably more demanding than those he encountered when he began 7th grade in the United States. “The math and science classes [covering the same subject matter] I was taking in Romania … when I was in 4th grade,” he said.

That observation did not surprise Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va. While he cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from looking at competitions that measure the skills of the truly elite math and science students, he said he believed that foreign countries were more inclined to push students through increasingly difficult subject matter, at each new grade level.

“We really should be revamping our curriculum,” Mr. Wheeler said. “There’s a deadly redundancy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Immigrants’ Children Inhabit the Top Ranks Of Math, Science Meets

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