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12/17/2010
03:11 PM
Rob Preston
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

As I reported in part one of my two-part series on STEM education, in the 2009 PISA tests, given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in 65 countries, students in Shanghai, China, earned the highest scores in both math and science while the Americans continued to score near the middle. Mark Schneider, an education commissioner in the George W. Bush administration who returned earlier this month from an educational research visit to China, told The New York Times that the "real significance" of the Chinese results "is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning. Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations." In other words, the U.S. can hang on to the "we're freer, more creative thinkers" argument for only so long.

Those who pooh-pooh STEM's importance because of the tight job market must understand that such education is important because it prepares people to think and work in an increasingly technical business environment and society. It's not necessarily training for a career in network administration or Java programming or IT project management--or, for that matter, for faculty positions at Cal-Tech or MIT, as the Scientific American article suggests. It's a competency that underpins a range of occupations--some of them just emerging--in a range of industries, including energy, healthcare, pharma, and financial services.

In a comment on the Scientific American article online, David Brin, a scientist and science fiction writer, argued that a scientific education prepares individuals for careers that have nothing to do with science. "We all know the hierarchy of academic training," Brin wrote. "Barring other deficits, a scientist is highly equipped, mentally, to invade any different field. Law schools know this; they leap to accept scientists or engineers who apply. Moreover, in Law and Politics, science is tragically, disturbingly under-represented."

He continued: "In the wider perspective, this is about the American notion of high education -- that its purpose is to create widely capable citizens, not narrowly-defined 'boffins' in the classic (british) sense. If our post-docs look at it this way, they will see tenure-failure as no more than a challenge to get out there and use those finely honed mental tools to do something else. And we are richer -- vastly so -- for every one of them who is out there."

Motorola CIO Leslie Jones has been deeply involved in elementary school STEM education for the past two years as honorary chairwoman of the Global Marathon for Women, an effort to get more girls thinking about science, technology, and engineering. The group connects girls, often 9 and 10 years old, with women working in the field. What works, Jones says, is explaining to the kids that "engineering and innovation isn't just about building things for business; it's about shaping the way the future can be. It's about the way you live, it's about the way you breathe. We talk about all the problems we face as a global community. The heart of the solutions are frequently the innovations in the engineering space."

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