Mathematics

A Look at Science and Engineering Indicators in the U.S.

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 18, 2018 2 min read
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The results of a federally mandated math and science data collection paint a wide-reaching picture of the state of science and engineering education in America: K-12 performance in science continues to be middling, and other powerful countries graduate a higher proportion of undergraduates with degrees in those subjects. But on the bright side, Americans still hold a high opinion of science and scientists generally.

The indicators are released every two years and presented to the U.S. president and Congress. Most of the report focuses on broad trends in research and development and industry, rather than K-12 indicators specifically, but it’s helpful to see where our corner of the science and engineering universe fits with larger points.

Much of the data comes from surveys and analyses the agency conducts. (It’s a little bit like the U.S. Department of Education’s various survey programs, which provide data to several summary publications, like the Digest of Education Statistics.) Others come from other federal data collections.

Below are some of the indicators that I found particularly interesting.

Here’s a nice roundup of U.S. student performance on a sample of math and science assessments. It’s a reminder that the long-term trend is up, but there have been recent downturns.

In higher education, other countries, particularly China, have apparently put a huge emphasis on bachelor’s degree attainment in science and engineering. Nearly half or more of all bachelor’s-level university degrees in Japan, Iran, China, and Israel were granted in those two subjects by 2014, compared with 40 percent in the United States, according to the indicators.

This graph notes that the bulk of federal funding for science research flows to the life sciences (biology, chemistry, and other fields that inform medicine), but is comparatively smaller for other sectors that affect K-12 more directly, notably social and behavior sciences (social-emotional learning, anyone?) and computer science and mathematics (a major curricular push these days).

And here’s a look at what Americans think of science, its benefits and flaws, and their general factual knowledge of science. The top graph comes from a survey NSF has conducted since 1979, and the bottom from a test of about 10 general science knowledge questions it’s given to a sample of the population periodically for years—true or false questions about basic science principles, such as that the continents continue to move apart.

The most recent data top out in 2016—so, effectively, these collections haven’t necessarily caught up with trends or attitudes that may have begun under the Trump administration. (There appears to have been a small resurgence in debates over climate change in the curriculum, and it will be interesting to see how these indicators change by 2018.)

The full report is more than 1,000 pages long, but you can find the more manageable digest here. You can also find an interactive tool that makes some of the NSF data (it’s dense, trust me) easier to navigate.

What do these trends mean for science and engineering education in the K-12 space? I’ll look forward to reading your comments below, along with any suggestions you have for math, science, and engineering coverage in the future.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.


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