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12/17/2010
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Rob Preston
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Innovation Mandate: Is America's STEM Education Deficit Overblown?

In the second of our two-part series, we explore what needs to be done to solidify this nation's technical grounding

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to STEM education in the U.S.: those who insist that improving American students' competencies in science, technology, engineering, and math is critical to this country's economic (and intellectual) future; and those who think vested interests are making way too much of this issue.

Among those calling for major improvements to STEM education are academics, scientists, and business leaders, who note how poorly American students fare on international science and math tests and who worry that this nation's ability to discover, invent, and innovate will fall behind as young people enter the workforce without a proper technical grounding. Then there are IT and other professionals who call attention to the tight science and technology job markets. Why worry so much about STEM education, they say, when employers aren't beating a path to people with those skills?

Adding fuel to this fire was a February 2010 article in Scientific American which argued that there's no shortage of scientists in America. In fact, according to the labor economists and researchers interviewed for that article, the supply of scientists far outstrips demand in the U.S. They cited as one piece of evidence the fact that scores of applications flood in for every science faculty position opening at U.S. colleges and universities.

The Scientific American article also took issue with the commonly held notion that the U.S. doesn't produce enough scientifically or technically talented students at the primary and secondary school levels. In Congressional testimony in November 2009, Michael Teitelbaum, a labor economist with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, reportedly said "students emerging from the oft-criticized K-12 system appear to be studying science and math subjects more, and performing better in them, over time." Worth noting, however, is the fact that Teitelbaum cited as evidence the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which actually put American students near the middle of the international pack when it comes to math and science. Subsequent PISA tests, taken in 2009, show no American improvement.

Making the case in the Scientific American article that the "U.S. has more high-scoring kids in science than any other country" and nearly as many in math as top-scoring Japan and Korea was Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute in Washington. U.S. tech innovation, Salzman said, tends to come from the highest achievers, not those in the middle or bottom of their classes. (Where the U.S. system appears to be furthest behind other countries, most agree, is in educating the bottom tier of students, especially certain minority groups.)

What's more, note some of the experts we interviewed for our Innovation Mandate series of articles, even if Americans don't score as high on STEM tests as students in other countries, they tend to be freer thinkers and more adept problem-solvers than the products of more rigidly disciplined education systems. Americans' social skills actually prepare them for collaborative workforces, where technical people must interact with others inside and outside their departments, challenge conventional thinking, and try new approaches--not just do things by the book.

Or so goes this line of thinking ... which, in my view, is starting to get a little old.

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