Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Expand the Pool of America's Future Scientists ; Public Schools Must Improve in Order to Engage More Minority Students in the Sciences

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Expand the Pool of America's Future Scientists ; Public Schools Must Improve in Order to Engage More Minority Students in the Sciences

Article excerpt

The conventional wisdom among business leaders and politicians is that vast hordes of highly trained Chinese engineering students are poised to descend, Khan-like, upon the plains of the global labor market, leaving the ruins of the American economy in their wake.

Ominous reports from high-profile studies and commissions have prompted calls for a new emphasis on mathematics and science from the Bush administration, the US Chamber of Commerce, and others. Yet in the rush to act on this latest surge of concern about our global position in science and engineering, there's a real danger our leaders will misread the problem and mishandle the solution.

America has been down this road before, first with the Russians and, more recently, the Japanese. And though gloomy predictions in the 1950s and the 1980s never came to pass, that does not mean the problem should be ignored. America faces a growing competitive challenge from countries such as India and China, which are quickly improving their educational systems, attracting more investment, and becoming hotbeds of innovation.

Yet the nature of the challenge is still not well understood. Many of the statistics commonly used to describe the new wave of Asian engineers are of dubious or nonexistent origin. The real numbers are likely much less than that. For instance, a recent study from Duke University found that many new Chinese "engineers" are actually technicians, working in fields such as automobile and HVAC repair.

Most of the solutions being trotted out are similarly suspect. For the most part, the solutions to this "new challenge" are a familiar mix of scholarships and student loan-forgiveness programs. Even the Bush administration's sensible emphasis on helping high school students take more advanced courses is a small scale add-on rather than a substantial assault on the issue. Unfortunately, all these ideas ignore the fact that scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are disproportionately white, male, and from economically advantaged backgrounds.

Unless we believe that a substantial number of such students are failing to choose science careers for want of proper inducements, many of the scarce resources devoted to new scholarship programs may well reward people of means for choices they would have made anyway. In fact, the richest untapped source of future talent will likely be found in our underserved cities and among low-income and minority students who are failing to receive a good education in our public schools. …

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