Future Investments

By Smerdon, Ernest T. | ASEE Prism, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Future Investments

Smerdon, Ernest T., ASEE Prism

Have you given much thought to today's K-12 education? You should. Some of us may not see the quality of elementary and secondary education as an issue ASEE should address, but I beg to differ. If the students who enter our colleges (the raw intellectual material, or the feedstock, if you will) are deficient in science and math, can we really expect to continue to produce the world's best engineers?

Here are some questions every engineering educator needs to ask:

* Do students entering our engineering and engineering technology programs know enough science and mathematics?

* How do U.S. students entering engineering colleges compare with first-year engineering students in other nations?

* If our K-12 students are not at least as well prepared in science and math as those in other countries, can U.S. universities graduate engineers that are as good as those in other countries?

You can find the answers to some of these questions in the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). (See Secondary Math and Science: A Less Than Stellar Performance, ASEE PRISM, September 1998, p. 10) This study, by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, indicates that today's U.S. K-12 students-the students who in just a few years will be sitting in our engineering classrooms-are far behind their international peers.

It would be easy to search for excuses to dismiss this study. I even accept the fact that there may be isolated cases where the comparisons are not totally fair. But as I look at the data and listen to the concerns of experts familiar with educational assessment procedures and testing methods, I believe what the study indicates: We face a potential crisis in science and math literacy in this nation.

Besides, this isn't really news. For years the National Science Foundation has been concerned about ways to improve K-12 math and science education. As NSF Director Neal Lane says, "In the 21st century, knowledge will be the most valuable commodity; and knowledge of science and mathematics will be the gold standard."

Just where did U.S. 12th graders stand in regard to the aforementioned knowledge "gold standard" as measured by the TIMSS study?

U.S. students ranked 18th in mathematics literacy and 16th in science literacy, 39 and 20 points, respectively, below the international averages. Of the 21 participating nations, the U.S. consistently ranked very near the bottom. Of the 16 countries that participated in the advanced math study, only Austria had a lower mean score.

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