Staying Competitive: In a Global Economy Many Argue That America Needs to Emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in Its Schools

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Move over reading, writing and 'rithmetic, a new acronym has taken the front seat in education. STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is now the rage.

Many recall the shock Americans felt when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the urgent push to ramp up our nation's ability to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation. Today, reports such as "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" by the National Academies of Sciences and books like The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman call for a renewed and equal effort in the 21st century.

"The vast majority of Americans, especially business and scientific leaders, still see the United States as the world's technological leader," says Bruce E. Bursten, president of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. "But many see a great potential for our leadership to diminish or disappear altogether if our country is no longer turning out enough of the best and brightest scientists and engineers," he says.

Bursten says there is a strong consensus in the business, education and scientific communities that our nation's future competitiveness in the global marketplace is directly tied to our ability to prepare children to be innovators for the technological economy of the future.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING AND MATH

But why the focus on STEM? Experts believe that in order for America to remain an economic leader in a global economy we must ensure that our citizens have strong skills in science, technology, engineering and math. Yet international comparisons of student achievement in math and science intensify concern about the United States' ability to remain competitive. The 2006 Program for International Student Assessment indicates that American 15-year-olds test 21st among 30 developed countries on science literacy and 25th on math literacy.

"It's interesting--and perhaps hopeful--that our 4th graders seem to do pretty well compared to their international peers in math and science," says Bursten. "By high school, however, their performance has fallen off. They are losing their interest in science somewhere along the way."

Business and industry leaders worry that too few students have a deep understanding of these subjects and are ill equipped to fill future jobs. According to the National Science Board, almost 30 percent of students in their first year of college must take remedial science and math classes. Few U.S. students major in and complete a degree in science, math or engineering.

China and India graduate math and science students in large numbers. Coupled with their low wages, they have a distinct advantage in attracting business ventures.

Very few women and minorities pursue math and science education or careers. In 2000, African Americans held only 4.4 percent of the science and engineering jobs and Hispanics only 3.4 percent. Women make up more than half of the college students in the nation, but represent little more than one quarter of the science and engineering workforce.

The requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act have led to intense focus on math and reading in schools across the country, at the expense of science, engineering and technology curricula. The Center on Education Policy report, "Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era," found that 62 percent of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts and math, while 44 percent of districts cut time on science and other subjects.

The National Science Board suggests policymakers focus on providing a streamlined system of science learning from preschool through graduate school, and ensuring an adequate supply of well-prepared and highly effective teachers. The Business Roundtable has organized 16 leading business and technology associations in an effort to double the number of science, technology, engineering or math graduates with bachelor's degrees by 2015. …