“Daddy, I want to grow up and be a scientist.” What now?

Many of you reading this are parents, have been parents or will be parents at some time in your life.  I suspect more than a handful of you have had one of your children say something like this  to you.  You might replace the word scientist with engineer and have about the same intent.  If you,the parent, are not similarly inclined you might just scratch your head and say that interests change and you’ll want to be a lawyer or accountant when you get older.  Nothing against the lawyer or accountant, but our country needs more scientists and engineers instead of accountants and especially lawyers.

A 2012 article from US News cites one of the greatest dilemmas that young people face when they consider a career in the sciences.  This quote sums it up quite well:

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says the military will face the same struggles as private firms when it comes to recruiting highly-skilled workers: There's better money elsewhere.

"If you can do math in America, you'd be crazy to be a chemist," he says. "You can get much higher earnings in business or healthcare, and you don't have to stay in the lab. It's easier to just get the MBA and make money."

As you continue to read on in this article you also learn that the STEM shortage is also a national security issue.

While private corporations are increasingly sending engineering work outside the United States due to a shortage of qualified American workers and cheaper wages overseas, the military doesn't have that option, with most STEM jobs requiring security clearances available only to American citizens.

"These jobs can't just be shifted overseas to foreign nationals," Adolfie says. "We have a need for clearable citizens."

The STEM pool becomes smaller considering that nearly half of America's new graduates in STEM disciplines are foreign born, making them ineligible for security clearances.

What is the solution?

Just as it is with most complex problems, the solutions are not easy and they are not quick.  STEM work is typically not easy and it requires knowledge and expertise in Science and Math, two areas where US students fall behind their contemporaries from other parts of the world.

There is some hope.  Another US News article talks about some improvements in the number of students attempting math and science classes:

Tom Luce, former CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, said that the United States needs a "STEM-literate population" that starts by "convincing the entire country that every child must conquer Algebra II." America has made steady progress toward that goal—in 1982, just 40 percent of high school graduates took Algebra II; in 2009, more than 75 percent did.

Students are taking more and harder math and science courses, as well. The NCES survey looks only at high school graduates; a June report by Education Week put the national high school graduation rate at about 72 percent for the class of 2008.

Since 2000, the percentage of graduates who took calculus increased from 11.6 percent to 15.9 percent, and the percentage of students taking pre-calculus increased from 27 percent to 35 percent over the same time frame.

In science, just a third of 1982 high school graduates took chemistry. By 2005, that number doubled, and in 2009, more than 70 percent of students took chemistry. Biology is now nearly universally taken by high school grads. Just more than a third of 2009 high school grads took physics, but nearly all students who took physics also took biology and chemistry.

Students are also taking more Advanced Placement examinations. In 1998, the College Board administered just under a million AP exams. In 2005, 2 million exams were given, and in 2010, 3.1 million exams were given.

I could wax on in greater detail on this subject, but I have chosen to be part of the solution to this problem by my work with STEM initiatives such as the ACE Mentor program and the GK-12 program here in the Nashville area.

What are you doing?  What can you do?

What must we all do?

  1. Get involved, personally
  2. Ask questions
  3. Support those doing the work