Science Dunces?

Article excerpt

Byline: Cheryl Wetzstein

America's legendary ingenuity and scientific know-how was demonstrated recently with the debut of "IT"-a human transporter that is intended to speed travel over short distances.

The device's New York-born inventor, Dean Kamen, is part of a long line of American inventors that stretches back to Benjamin Franklin.

There is growing concern, however, about whether there will be many American inventors lining up behind Mr. Kamen, given U.S. students' solidly mediocre science scores.

"American companies need workers who not only have factual knowledge about science and math, but the ability to apply scientific knowledge to a new situation," said Edward Donley, former chairman of the Air Products and Chemicals Inc.

But there simply aren't enough people coming from U.S. secondary schools who have these reasoning and application skills, he said, adding that American companies have been importing so many foreign technicians that their labs look like "mini-United Nations."

Recent surveys have confirmed lackluster American scores:

cThe Third International Mathematics and Science Study, taken in 1995 and repeated in 1999, showed U.S. eighth graders ranking 14th out of 38 countries. The 1999 scores were virtually unchanged from 1995.

cThe massive National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science, released in November, showed that 47 percent of high school seniors don't have "basic" science skills. This is worse than in 1996, when 43 percent of seniors couldn't answer basic questions about earth, life or physical science.

cAnother international student assessment - the Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - found that American 15-year-olds have average science-literacy scores, ranking 14th out of 31 countries.

"In the global economy . . . average is not good enough for American kids," Education Secretary Rod Paige said when the OECD results were released Dec. 4.

The NAEP results "are troubling," said Mr. Donley, who is a member of an NAEP governing board.

According to NAEP, science scores worsen as children progress through public school: U.S. fourth graders rank fairly high when measured against peers in other countries. However, science grades slip into the average range by the eighth grade and fall below par by 12th grade.

The NAEP scores show "that the longer the kids stay in school, the less well they do," said Milton Friedman, the 89-year-old Nobel laureate, economist and school-voucher proponent.

The science scores are "disastrous" but not unexpected, given the "Soviet-style" monopoly of public K-12 education in the United States, Mr. Friedman said recently at a video conference with reporters.

"It's a fascinating thing that when it comes to higher education - universities, colleges - the United States is No. 1 in the world," Mr. Friedman said. "But when it comes to lower education, we're at the bottom. The difference between those two is one word: Choice; c-h-o-i-c-e."

Unquestionably, American science and technology colleges and universities are world-renowned, science and education experts said.

But already at some of these schools, foreign-born students outnumber Americans, and at the rate U.S. students are going, this gap is likely to widen.

The influx of highly trained, highly educated individuals from around the world has benefited the United States greatly, said Bruce Fuchs, director of the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health, who recalled Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan explaining this fact of life to Congress a year ago. …