Mathematics

Business and Academe Call for Encouraging Math, Science Interest

By Sean Cavanagh — December 13, 2005 3 min read
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Mounting angst was on display here last week as corporate and university leaders gathered to press federal officials to take steps to ensure that the United States keeps up economically with foreign competitors—and that schools produce enough talent in math, science, and engineering to make it happen.

About 300 business and university leaders voiced their concerns at the Dec. 7 forum, called the National Summit on Competitiveness: Investing in U.S. Innovation. It aimed to “sound the alarm on threats to America’s economic leadership,” according to a written description of the event.

Americans tend to think “if we kind of step back and wait five years, this [issue] will go away,” said Dana G. Mead, the chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corp., the board of trustees for the university, located in Cambridge, Mass. “We don’t believe this one is going to go away.”

Difficult and Boring?

While much of the discussion focused on ways to spark business innovation and research and development, various corporate leaders said stimulating the interest of U.S. students in mathematics and science—given the emphasis placed on those subjects in many other countries—is every bit as important. The depth of math and science talent in nations such as China and India will soon allow them to morph from manufacturing powers to innovative juggernauts as well, some attendees predicted. (“International Forum Examines Asian Nations’ Math Strategies,” Dec. 7, 2005.)

James G. Berges, the retired president of Emerson Network Power, a St. Louis-based technology and engineering firm, also warned that unless K-12 schools generate more talent, American businesses will suffer as waves of baby boomers in science and engineering retire.

“We are not replacing them at a fast enough rate,” he said.

Mr. Berges drew an exasperated chuckle from the room at an opening session when he cited a recent survey by a defense contractor, the Raytheon Company, showing that 84 percent of middle school students would rather clean their rooms, take out the garbage, or go to the dentist than do their math homework. Forty-three percent of those polled said they have difficulty understanding the math they are taught; 34 percent find it boring.

Double the Numbers

South Korea, meanwhile, graduates the same number of engineers as the United States, despite having one-sixth the population, according to a recent federal study. In addition, the number of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States has dropped by 20 percent since 1985. Currently, about 200,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents earn bachelor’s degrees annually in science fields. Attendees at the summit hope to double that number by 2015.

Like other attendees, Mr. Berges said federal officials could prevent that shortage by allowing more flexible immigration and visa policies to attract talented science and engineering workers from overseas. National experts have noted that many of the nation’s top-performing K-12 math and science students are the sons and daughters of immigrants. (“Immigrants’ Children Inhabit the Top Ranks Of Math, Science Meets,” July 28, 2004.)

After an initial public briefing, attendees at the summit retreated to private audiences with Bush administration officials from the departments of Education, Energy, and Commerce, as well as the National Science Foundation, according to Daniel Walsch, a spokesman for George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., which helped arrange the event.

The need to cultivate more homegrown math and science talent was the subject of several Washington forums last week. The National Science Board, the congressionally chartered governing board of the National Science Foundation, staged the first of three public hearings on Capitol Hill on improving math, science, and technology education.

And the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training, a Washington organization that represents nonprofit groups, businesses, and others, held a forum at the U.S. Capitol on ways in which digital technology can improve math and science education.

Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, told attendees at that event that U.S. schools had to encourage as many students as possible to take demanding math and science courses to prepare them for “a number of opportunities.”

“If they don’t get through Algebra 2 in high school,” Ms. Traiman said, “they’re going nowhere in science.”

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