03/04/05 — Wake-up call: On science and math, we’ve lost the edge

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Wake-up call: On science and math, we’ve lost the edge

The industrial and military might of the United States must be attributed in great measure to its engineering genius.

It gave us the “smart bombs,” unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, superior tactical and strategic planes, tanks and surface and underwater Navy vessels.

Our economic prowess is not based on our having more or harder working people, but on advanced technology.

Are we in danger of losing the edge?

Robert J. Herbold, a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, fears that well could be the case. He is a man of impressive credentials: retired CEO of Microsoft, former senior vice president of Procter & Gamble, board member of numerous major corporations, holder of bachelor, master’s and doctoral degrees.

He spoke last year at a National Leadership Seminar in Seattle. The seminar was sponsored by Hillsdale College in Spring Arbor, Mich.

Quoting National Science Foundation data, Dr. Herbold noted a “dramatic shift” in the percentage of U.S. college graduates getting science, engineering and mathematics degrees compared to those in other industrialized countries.

In 2001, the percentage of graduates receiving engineering and science degrees from U.S. institutions was 17 percent. In China, 58 percent of the graduates received degrees in engineering and science. Thirty-six percent of South Korea’s graduates majored in science and math, 36 percent in South Korea, 34 percent in Taiwan, 31 percent in Germany, 28 percent in the United Kingdom — and a whopping 68 percent in Singapore.

Nobel Prize-winning science professor R.A. Smalley of Rice University says that by 2010, all but 10 percent of the Ph.D. physical scientists and engineers will be living in Asia.

And these are the people who historically have driven the innovations that lead to new industries and economic growth, according to Herbold.

Why are we lagging?

Herbold attributes this to the lack of preparation of American students, making a substantial percentage of them not interested in or unable to cope with college level courses in science and engineering. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, in the year 2000, only 18 percent of 12th-grade students rated advanced or proficient in science, and only 16 percent scored at that level in math.

Ninety percent of the other countries in the world ranked above the U.S.

Herbold says too many of our students in K-12 are being taught science and math by unqualified teachers. Fifty-six percent of high school students taking physical science were taught by “out of field” teachers, according to a study made in 2000.

The Committee for Economic Development reported that in 2003, some 93 percent of science students and 70 percent of math students were taught by “out of field” teachers.

Herbold also blames “weak curricula.”

In 2003, the American Association for the Advancement of Science rated less than 10 percent of middle school math books — and no science books — as “acceptable.”

As a member of the president’s Council on Science and Technology, Herbold sees a need for educators, school administrators, teachers unions, state bureaucracies, school boards and politicians to abandon a circle-the-wagons mentality, accept their responsibilities and rise to the challenge.

They need to “ease their opposition to vouchers and charter schools, and stop promoting unprepared students to the next grade level,” according to Herbold.

He says the country needs more teachers well-prepared to teach math and science — teachers rewarded with 10 percent increases in pay annually for outstanding performance, teachers who will command salaries in excess of $100,000 a year! And the courage to terminate poorly performing teachers.

Political courage and funding — including re-allocation of funding within the systems — are an important part of what Herbold sees as the solution.

And he sees the cost of failure as unacceptable, “leading inevitably to the weakening of our nation.”

It is all too evident that, compared to other industrialized nations, we already have embarked on a downhill course.

Published in Editorials on March 4, 2005 11:38 AM