Education & Outreach
U.S. Science Gap on Global
Sidebar: U.S. science stats Print
When it comes to performance in math and science, the widening gap between
American and international students is a growing concern, according to academics,
politicians and business professionals. They say the trend is nothing new, but
if it continues without educational reform, then the economic strength of the
United States could be in jeopardy.
The gap does not pose a significant problem now, says Gerald McElvy, president
of the ExxonMobil Foundation, but extrapolating the trend into the future, U.S.
businesses could be in trouble. Baby boomers are retiring and among the subsequent
generations of employees, fewer American students graduate with degrees in math
or science. That trend, McElvy says, makes for a smaller pool of qualified employee
candidates, as well as reduced innovation.
If the trend continues, it is going to hurt a great deal in the future,
says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.
A large number of jobs are now outsourced because overseas employees cost less,
El-Baz says. However, as those employees become exposed to the fact that the people
doing similar work elsewhere are paid this and that, El-Baz says,
they will begin to ask for higher salaries which would be tolerated because
of a shortage of qualified scientists and engineers in the United States.
is the time to really do something about the declining scientific and technological
edge of Americans."
- Deborah Stine, National Academies
Countries from Europe eastward are excelling in part because students there are
exposed to science at a much younger age than in the United States, El-Baz says.
Working in the earth sciences internationally from teaching geology in
Germany and in his native Egypt, to working as a science advisor to the late Egyptian
president Anwar Sadat El-Baz says that he has noticed that the lack of
early exposure to basic science leads American students to fear science
and view it as something tough that you learn about when youre older,
when youre better. In contrast, El-Baz says that some of his best
students, who are from China, were exposed to science earlier. As a result, they
are not fearful of picking up a paper, reading it and applying it.
El-Baz compared his experience presenting research at the Geological Society of
America meeting in Salt Lake City with a similar presentation at the International
Geological Conference meeting in Beijing. In China, he says, more high school
students volunteered at the meeting, attended the lectures and approached him
afterward with questions. American students show a lack of interest because
they are not familiar with the topics, he says. It becomes unfriendly
The perceived lag had Congress racing to find solutions in time for consideration
within the U.S. 2006 fiscal year budget. Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lamar
Alexander (R-Tenn.) commissioned the National Academies to prioritize the top
10 actions that policy makers could take to improve Americas efforts in
science and technology, to compete, prosper, and be secure in this
centurys global economy, according to the Oct. 12 National Academies report.
We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be
lost and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost if indeed it can
be regained at all, the committee wrote in the Oct. 12 report.
Determining what puts a country in the lead, however, is not an exact science.
One indicator of a nations scientific success that the committee considered
for its report was the number of high-tech exports from a country, such as cell
phones or computer software. Other indicators included the number of studies published
in peer-reviewed journals, the number of science and engineering graduates, and
student performance as indicated by the Trends in International Mathematics and
Science Study (TIMSS), which collects data from 35 countries.
According to the last TIMSS assessment in 2003, U.S. eighth graders improved their
performance in math and science compared to scores in 1995. During this same time,
eighth graders also increased their science standings relative to other countries
from 14th to eighth place. This may seem like good news, but those that ranked
higher than the United States, such as Hong Kong and Korea, have improved their
scores so dramatically that the gap is only widening, the TIMSS assessment noted.
To reverse the trend, the National Academies committee decided that the first
priority should be to increase Americas talent pool by improving
math and science education. Now is the time to really do something about
the declining scientific and technological edge of Americans, says Deborah
Stine, study director at the National Academies who organized the reports
committee, which was in part composed of active and retired business chief executives,
university presidents and Nobel Prize-winning scientists.
The teams report calls for increased scholarships, up to $20,000 per year,
for annually recruiting 10,000 of the brightest students into the
teaching profession, as well as providing up to $1 million grants to universities
that promote science and engineering degrees in conjunction with teaching certification.
The report also suggests a 10 percent annual increase in funding for basic research
for the next seven years.
Americans need to invest more, specifically in education, if they ever hope
to close the gap, says committee member Richard Zare, chemistry professor at
Stanford University. Some people in the business community turn up their
noses at this and say, theres no short-term return for that,
and you know, theyre right there is no short-term payoff for education,
Zare says, but there is a long-term payoff.
Businesses have already started making the investment in education. The Mickelson
ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, for example, is a five-day program designed to give
third- through fifth-grade teachers the resources to motivate students to succeed
in math and science (see Geotimes, June 2005). The
responsibility to make sure the public is broadly educated in science, so that
they can make knowledgeable decisions in a democratic society, McElvy says, should
be shared among large corporations and national and state governments.
El-Baz says he is hopeful that the situation will turn around, especially now
that Congress recognizes the threat posed by additional competition abroad as
borders are erased by new technologies. Countries that are very
well versed in science and engineering are going to lead the way, and we dont
want to be in the bottom of the barrel, El-Baz says.
Funding, however, remains a critical and uncertain component of science education
as science funding is generally under fire and the nations deficit grows
(see Geotimes Political Scene, December 2005). Which
of the reports recommendations will be allocated funds from the 2006 fiscal
budget remains to be seen, and Zare is less hopeful for funding following last
years costly hurricane season. Some of this may have blown away,
Zare says. He says that he is pleased, however, that politicians from both parties
recognize the problem and want to actually try and do something.
"Now We Must Conserve,"
Geotimes Political Scene, December 2005.
"Golfer Phil Mickelson on Science,"
Geotimes, June 2005.
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